When former West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry allegedly spent thousands of dollars in state funds on marble for his office’s bathroom, he wanted to make sure it matched the inlay for the $7,500 state map ingrained on his office floor.
He’s also accused of spending $32,000 in taxpayer money on a couch — which was accessorized with throw pillows to the tune of $1,700.
West Virginia House lawmakers voted to impeach Loughry — and all three of his colleagues on the bench — this week after an investigation uncovered the lavish spending of taxpayer funds, overpayments to senior judges, and general judicial corruption. The justices have denied many of the allegations, and Democrats in the state, in turn, accused Republicans of a naked power play designed to ultimately flood the court with conservatives.
“I think it is the Republican Party wanting to have complete control over the state of West Virginia,” Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, a Democrat and minority chair of the state’s judiciary committee, told VICE News. She’s raised concerns about Republicans potentially controlling all three branches of government in the state. “I think it was an overreach. I think it was a coup. I think it was a takeover. And I think it was very wrong.”
In addition to Loughry’s expensive taste in decor, Justice Robin Davis also allegedly spent $500,000 on extensive office remodeling, including a $20,000 oval rug, an $8,000 desk chair, and $23,000 in design services.
But the rot goes far beyond just wasteful spending. Local reporting — which initially uncovered alleged abuses by Loughry — led to the discovery of a litany of alleged wrongdoing by the other justices, including overpaying senior-status judges, failing to report taxable fringe benefits, and failing to properly carry out administrative duties of the court.
Among the many charges leveled at the court, those against Loughry are the most egregious: improperly using state government equipment, stealing a historic desk, and lying to the House investigative committee while under oath. A grand jury indicted him on 25 federal charges over the last several months, including fraud, lying to investigators and witness tampering.
Loughry has since been suspended without pay and temporarily replaced with a justice from a lower court, who’s not implicated in any of the scandals. And another justice already on the bench, Margaret Workman, took over the role of chief justice. Still, Loughry strenuously denies the allegations leveled at him and has pleaded not guilty to the majority of the federal counts.
“I think this entire matter does great damage to people's faith in the judiciary and also in government as a whole,” said Gregory Bowman, the dean of the West Virginia University College of Law. “I think it is very important for us to move as a state on this as expeditiously as possible to bring closure and to move forward to restore faith in the Supreme Court and the judiciary and the State Government as a whole.”
All five Supreme Court justices are normally elected by West Virginians for 12-year terms. At the start of the year, two Republicans and three Democrats sat on the court. (Two have since retired.) So now, it’s up to the state Senate to decide whether to convict the three remaining justices. If they do, Republican Gov. Jim Justice — a former Democrat who’s now a favorite of President Trump — will have to appoint their replacements.
“We elect our Supreme Court, and all of a sudden you're changing the method and you're having appointments by a Republican governor,” Delegate Fleischauer also told VICE News. “Democrats, we pride ourselves on looking out for ordinary West Virginians. And I think the the party that's in control of the legislature right now is more interested in making sure that corporations thrive. It could change the results in cases.”
But Justice Davis, a Democrat, pulled a political maneuver of her own this week when she retired rather than wait to find out if the Senate would convict her.
“I just cannot allow the finalizing of this plot to come to fruition,” Davis, who was on the court for 21 years, said in a statement earlier this week.
Davis’s retirement means West Virginia voters will get the chance to elect her replacement in November, rather than defer to the governor’s pick. With Loughry suspended, the two remaining impeached justices — and their colleague who’s not caught up in the impeachment process — will continue to hear cases when the court returns to session on Sept. 5.
“Any time the makeup of a court changes, that does have an impact on precedent," added Bowman, who is also on the committee to provide a shortlist to the governor of potential replacements for justices who are convicted. “For the cases that are currently on the docket, this will slow things down.”
Alexa Liautaud and Stacey Naggiar contributed to this report.
Cover image: Collage with photos by WVa Legislature/Perry Bennett