Everyone who has described the lawsuit against Gov. Jim Justice regarding his residency as a political stunt might want to take a look around, because the governor seems to be taking it pretty seriously.
Why else would the governor attempt to add George Terwilliger, a Washington, D.C., attorney who was acting U.S. attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, to his legal squad?
Terwilliger, whose law firm’s website describes itself as a “strategic response and crisis management group,” would join a legal team already headed up by Michael Carey, the former prosecutor who wrangled a guilty plea out of former Gov. Arch Moore. The motion to have Terwilliger join the case still has to be approved by a judge.
So, on one side, you’ve got the makings of a legal dream team to represent the governor, who refuses to live in Charleston as the state constitution appears to require, but instead lives a couple of hours away, in Lewisburg. On the other side, you’ve got Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendelton, who, as a practicing attorney, is representing himself.
“I’m just a little old country lawyer form Pendleton County, and I’m taking on the most powerful man in state government, the state’s only billionaire; a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Arch Moore; and now, a former U.S attorney general,” Sponaugle told the Gazette-Mail.
We have to grin a bit at Sponaugle’s “aw shucks” routine, because anyone who has followed him in his legislative career knows he’s a bit of a firebrand with little compunction about taking the occasional grandstand. There’s not much that’s little, old or country about him. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong when it comes to the governor’s residency, though; nor in his assessment of the team Justice is amassing.
This has always been a serious endeavor for Sponaugle, and it seems Justice is now viewing it the same way, especially after a judge refused to grant the governor’s motion to get this lawsuit — the third of its kind — tossed.
Of course, there’s a way to solve this outside a protracted legal battle, and that’s for Gov. Justice to live in Charleston, whether in the Governor’s Mansion or in an apartment. That seems unlikely, as Justice is retaining attorneys who will be very good at parsing the constitution’s language that the governor must reside “at the seat of government.”
The root of this entire case stems from frustration, among Democrats and Republicans alike, that Justice doesn’t appear to be a full-time governor. Justice will continually insist that no one works harder than he and nothing happens at the Capitol without him knowing about it. But saying it doesn’t make it true.
Justice has often been absent at critical times during legislative sessions. He’s earned the ire of GOP leadership — which controls the state House and Senate and, with Justice’s party switch in 2017, the executive office — because he seems to wander into issues in the late stages, not a few times throwing Republican plans into chaos.
We will always give the governor credit for intervening late in the session this year to quash underhanded efforts by the GOP to cram a massive education overhaul bill through the Legislature (although he became involved only after the second teacher strike in as many years). The special session Justice called resulted in a compromise, but it never would have come to that if Justice had put the legislation he wanted — a straight pay raise for state workers, including public school teachers — through the process at the beginning of the session and remained on the job to make sure it got done.
The cellphone and the conference call are wonderful things, but humans have yet to come up with anything that keeps a person engaged in any complicated process better than tight focus and actually showing up. Justice wants four more years from West Virginians. Regardless of what happens with the residency lawsuit, voters shouldn’t give Justice another term if it means four more years of fractured leadership from afar.