West Virginia’s highest court next month is scheduled to hear arguments in the case of whether Gov. Jim Justice is violating the state constitution by not residing in Charleston.
The state Supreme Court is expected Oct. 14 to hear Justice’s appeal of a Kanawha circuit judge’s denial of the governor’s motion to dismiss the case filed by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle.
As part of a July 2019 ruling, Judge Charles King ordered Justice’s attorneys to send questions to the Supreme Court to help define the legal meaning of “residency.”
If the court rules for Justice, it could end the 2-year-old case against him. He is seeking reelection in November.
In their petition to the court, Justice’s attorneys argue the question is political and it’s up to the governor or the legislature to decide residency by amending state law or the West Virginia Constitution. The judicial branch deciding the question would represent a violation of the separation of powers clauses in both the state and U.S. constitutions, the governor’s attorneys contend.
Ruling on what it means for the governor to “reside” in Charleston also would position the courts in the role of dictating how the chief executive acts while in office, Justice’s lawyers argue.
“In so doing, the courts would become overseers of the personal and political activity of the Governor,” Justice’s attorneys write in their petition. “The absurdity of that proposition is unavoidable and the fundamental, constitutional principle of separation of powers prudently forbids it.”
Justice is represented by Michael Carey and David Pogue of Carey, Scott, Douglas & Kessler in Charleston and George Terwilliger of McGuire Woods in Washington, D.C.
As a U.S. attorney, Carey prosecuted the 1990 case in which former Gov. Arch Moore pleaded guilty to mail fraud, extortion, obstruction of justice and filing false income tax returns. That resulted in a five-year prison sentence.
Sponaugle is one among other lawmakers who called out Justice early in his gubernatorial term for not working full-time at the governor’s office in Charleston. A Pendeleton County Democrat, Sponaugle is an attorney representing himself in this case.
In a petition filed in January, Sponaugle said Justice repeatedly has admitted to working from his Greenbrier County home, only coming to Charleston when it is convenient. Sponaugle says the governor only stayed in the taxpayer-funded Governor’s Mansion along Kanawha Boulevard “a handful of nights” from January 2017 to January 2019.
“When he decides to go to work, which is not a regular occurrence, at the seat of government, he drives himself to and from Greenbrier County,” Sponaugle said in his brief. “[Justice] has made consistent and repeated public remarks that [he] has not, is not and will not reside at the seat of government.”
Justice’s absences from Charleston have led to scandals, mismanagement of public money, no communication with cabinet secretaries and a decrease in the productivity of state government, Sponaugle said.
Justice’s argument that the court shouldn’t hear the case is based on an “incorrect interpretation of legal precedent,” Sponaugle said.
Supreme Court Justice Tim Armstead, who previously served as state House speaker, has recused himself. Berkeley Circuit Judge Bridget Cohee will hear the case in his place.