The West Virginia Supreme Court has decided that it will not allow itself to be impeached.
More precisely, it will not allow Chief Justice Margaret Workman to be impeached. Workman prevailed Thursday in her suit to have the state Supreme Court order a halt to her upcoming impeachment trial — from the state Supreme Court.
Yet the decision handed down Thursday afternoon has disturbing implications far beyond her case and the court’s current troubles.
In a sweeping opinion that purports to “keep the scales of justice balanced,” five judges — state trial judges appointed as an ad hoc Supreme Court solely to hear this case — have instead drastically tilted the scales, snatching power for the judiciary in defiance of the clear text of the West Virginia Constitution.
The court claimed that there was “a rush to judgment” in the impeachment proceedings that “fundamental fairness” required them to rectify. The nearly 70-page opinion delves into the minutiae of the impeachment charges against Workman, treating the House of Delegates as if it were a lower court.
But impeachment is not a judicial proceeding. It does not even purport to be one. It is a political act by a political body.
The West Virginia constitution provides that the House of Delegates can impeach for “maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.”
Those are broad standards, and a majority of the House of Delegates found that Workman’s conduct and that of her fellow justices fell within them.
Workman may believe there was “a rush to judgment” — although the controversy over lavish spending at the court was aired for months and well understood.
Workman may believe the standards and procedures used to impeach her were not those of a courtroom — but that is entirely beside the point.
The House of Delegates has “the sole power of impeachment.” If its decision is subject to reversal by the judiciary — particularly when it is judges who have been impeached — then West Virginia does not have three co-equal branches of government.
The Senate now faces an excruciating question: Whether to move forward with an impeachment trial that the constitution gives it the power to hold, or to defer to a dangerously erroneous court order.
The court in this case should have had the modesty and foresight not to pit the two branches against each other in this way. The course it took was irresponsible and improvident.
We hope that the state is not standing on the brink of a constitutional crisis, but if it is, let’s be clear about who put us there: the five judges who issued yesterday’s ill-considered ruling.