Members of the House Judiciary Committee and a pool of news media got a first-hand look Monday at the offices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The tour was part of evidence in the ongoing investigation into the possible impeachment of one or more justices on the bench of the state’s high court.
The committee and a pool of reporters toured the court offices to see recent renovations, including a couch, an elaborate floor inlay and other furniture, which have all been part of the focus of the possible impeachments. The roughly 40-minute tour included the offices of all five justices on the court, as well as other administrative offices.
The tour was delayed last month after committee members cited concerns about possible violations of the state’s open meetings law. The court had initially refused to allow photography or video of the tour.
Below are notes of the tour compiled by Brad McElhinny of WVMetroNews and distributed by the West Virginia Press Association. They have been edited by West Virginia Public Broadcasting for clarity:
The tour began in a conference room with a horizontal wooden table with a glass top. Inlaid into the glass were some outlets for electronics.
“I’ve never seen glass cut like that before,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, as she looked at the table.
The most time – but still only probably five or 10 minutes – was spent in Justice Allen Loughry’s office.
Delegates lingered around the infamous $32,000 couch, touching its suede fabric and commenting on the cost of the couch and the six pillows.
“It looks like a regular couch to me,” Joe Altizer, counsel for the minority party, commented.
No one sat on it.
They also gathered in a circle around the wooden inlaid floor that was designed just for Loughry, commenting on the beauty of the wood.
“It is beautiful,” Fleischauer commented.
She later added, “How many different kinds of wood are there?”
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, reached down to touch the floor.
Another item of interest in the office was a television that Loughry had asked to be set off behind a cabinet door.
“There’s the TV,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio.
When the rest of the group left the office, Delegate Fast returned to look at the professionally framed items on Loughry’s wall, including a long horizontal photograph of his swearing-in ceremony.
This office was the only one where a justice was there to greet the delegates.
Chief Justice Margaret Workman told delegates, “If you all have any questions, just ask.”
Workman sat behind her desk and pointed out that the wooden floor and a wooden cabinet were the only items renovated with taxpayer dollars.
“Where I spent the money that I spent was on permanent fixtures, all the built in cabinets, shelving and flooring that will be here a hundred years from now,” Workman said.
In an interview with a media pool representative during the tour, Workman elaborated.
There was an initial disagreement over the ground rules for the tour, including whether media could accompany delegates.
“I welcome anybody who wants to come in and see these offices. We have never closed these offices off to the press. Kennie Bass was here and took pictures months and months ago. But Art Angus our security guy really wants the layout not be published.”
“With this day and age, I think we’re aware of shooters and possible dangers.”
Workman added, “Originally, I think our staff had talked with Chairman Shott and they had agreed it wasn’t a public meeting and there really wasn’t any controversy. However, I know some of the members had said it should be open. We had no objection to that, except for anything related to security.”
There was also a letter from the court to the judiciary committee near the beginning of the impeachment proceedings a few weeks ago, calling the hearings a “fishing expedition” because of the broad scope.
Workman stood by some of the concerns raised in that letter.
“The concern was we just wanted to know what the rules of the proceeding were going to be. On one hand, it’s been likened to the way a grand jury functions and yet if it were like a grand jury the members wouldn’t be going on talk radio or serving dinner to a witness.”
That last remark was about former Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury, who testified all day and into the dinner hour, accepting an invitation to eat fried chicken that had been prepared by Chairman Shott’s wife and offered to all the delegates and staff.
“We need to get information from all sides, not just a side with an ax to grind,” Workman said.
As the interview concluded, Workman added, “Just remember everything in here belongs to me but that was what cost a few dollars as well as the floor. And those things will be here a few hundred years from now,” she said, pointing at the wood cabinets.”
Justice Walker’s office
The shortest visit of all was to Justice Beth Walker’s office.
The renovation to that office cost $130,654.
The office had previously been occupied by Justice Brent Benjamin. The office was renovated during his term at a cost of $264,000.
There was very little conversation among the delegates as they walked through Walker’s office.
Justice Davis’s office
Davis’s office renovation was the most expensive of all. It features thick glass shelves with Blenko glass on top of some of the cabinets. There were two Edward Fields floor rubs valued at $28,000. There is also a closet with a circular, glass door.
It also has a high-backed desk chair valued at $8,000 that Davis described as helpful to relieve arthritis pain. Delegate Fleischauer sat in the chair and concluded that it is comfortable.
There was also a little evidence of whimsy. One of the few items on Davis’s desk, aside from a stapler, was a decision-making device which would randomly point to options such as “pass the buck,” “no,” “tomorrow” or “sit on it.”
Delegate Fleischauer looked at a white couch, low to the ground, and said, “I wouldn’t want to sit on that one.” But then she did, confirming that it was awfully low to the floor.
Justice Ketchum’s office
Justice Ketchum resigned from the court before the impeachment proceedings began, and his term concluded at the end of July.
There was little evidence of Ketchum’s presence in the office since he has vacated it.
There were, however, some personal framed items – including newspaper clippings from Ketchum’s time on the court, plus some keepsakes from Marshall University and Huntington – that were still on the wall.
The framing was done with public funds – one of the subjects of the impeachment hearings – so Ketchum hasn’t been able to take home his personal items inside the frames.
Ketchum’s office also had the most “Cass Gilbert” furniture – a reference to the Capitol architect. He had a table and two desks associated with Cass Gilbert.
The hallway at the Supreme Court has framed, official portraits of the justices. Ketchum’s space is blank because he is no longer on the court. Loughry’s portrait is still there because he is suspended but not yet off the court.
There was little commenting by delegates during a tour of other areas of the court’s office space, including the office of counsel. They did see a safe door that protects some of the original documents of West Virginia’s Supreme Court.
Delegates also lingered in the Supreme Court chambers, where the justices hear oral arguments.
There are two quotes by American historic figures along the chamber ceiling.
One is a piece from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “Firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
The other is from a letter by President Thomas Jefferson: “Government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.”