A Kanawha circuit judge rebuffed Gov. Jim Justice’s request that legal action filed against him for failing to reside in Charleston be dismissed.
Judge Charles King made the move in an order Wednesday, giving Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, a victory after several losing bouts in the case. King ordered Justice to answer to Sponaugle’s discovery request within 30 days, and to file a response to the petition for a writ of mandamus in 10 days.
Sponaugle’s discovery request is likely the next frontier in the legal battle between the two men. Sponaugle sought Justice’s tax returns from 2017 and 2018, information on where the governor spends his time, and a request for a formal admission that Justice does not live at the governor’s mansion.
West Virginia’s constitution requires the governor to reside at the seat of government, and the central arguments in the case have boiled down to what exactly it means to reside at a place, a concept lawyers for the governor argued is “slippery like an eel.”
At a hearing in June on the motion to dismiss, Sponaugle, a private attorney representing himself in the case, said residency comes down to physical presence in a place and the intent to live there.
As a remedy, he said King could rule Justice’s alleged failure to live at the seat of government is a “disability” under the state constitution, which would promote the lieutenant governor (who is also the Senate president) to the chief executive role until the elected governor relieves himself of the purported disability.
Attorneys for the governor argued residency is too “nebulous” a concept to ask the court to pin down, and judicial intervention on how the governor spends his time would amount to a separation-of-powers issue. They also argued it would be difficult to enforce and to measure compliance.
Though legal briefs and oral arguments have muddied the waters on the idea of residency, in more candid moments, the governor has suggested he lives at his home in Lewisburg.
“There’s all kinds of reasons from the knees down to my toes, from all kinds of things, that make my life better if I can make it home. I stay when I need to stay, but I don’t miss anything,” Justice said at a June town hall event when discussing the lawsuit.
In 2017, Justice said “most all the time, I’m in Greenbrier County” when asked where he lives.
After the June hearing, Michael Carey, his attorney in the case, said Justice resides in Lewisburg.
“He’s obviously got issues that make him feel more comfortable to reside in Lewisburg, but he gets up every morning and he drives where he needs to go, whether it’s Charleston, whether it’s Beckley, whether it’s Martinsburg,” he said.
Brian Abraham, general counsel to the governor, could not immediately be reached for comment. Carey said he will review Sponaugle’s discovery request as presented.
“Obviously we disagree with the court’s conclusion, but we will review it and consider our next step,” he said.
Sponaugle originally filed the petition last summer, though King dismissed it because Sponaugle failed to give the state 30 days’ notice before filing a lawsuit against it. The state Supreme Court declined to take up the case.