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HomeSpotlight Story | Bird’s Eye View | Budget & Taxes | Politics & Leadership | Governors | Hot Issues | Once Around the Statehouse Lightly
Last month the West Virginia House voted to impeach all of the sitting justices on the state’s Supreme Court. And this week the Senate will begin its impeachment trial for those justices.
At least a couple of the justices have been charged with serious crimes, including fraud and witness tampering. But Democrats in the state have accused Republicans of staging a coup by going after the whole court. They point out that the impeachment effort didn’t go into full swing until after a deadline had passed allowing the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, instead of the state’s voters, to fill any openings that might be created on the court.
It’s not the only time state Supreme Court justices have faced the threat of impeachment under such circumstances recently. A couple of years ago, after the Kansas Supreme Court defied state lawmakers’ will on school funding and the death penalty, the state’s Senate passed legislation expanding the grounds for impeachment to include “attempting to subvert fundamental laws and introduce arbitrary power” and “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government.”
Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania filed articles of impeachment against Supreme Court justices who had voted to strike down the state’s congressional map as an unconstitutional gerrymander and replace it with a new one that is more favorable to Democrats. And in North Carolina last month, the executive director of the state GOP publicly stated that state’s Supreme Court justices might be impeached if they threw out a pair of constitutional amendments placed on the state’s November ballot by the General Assembly that would increase the power of lawmakers at the expense of the state’s new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper.
“There’s a kind of a war going on between the legislatures and the courts,” said Chris Bonneau, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. “Absolutely, we’re seeing a new environment.”
In earlier times judicial impeachments weren’t that uncommon. The New Hampshire General Court cleared out the state’s entire Supreme Court at least five times during the 19th century. Impeachments became more rare in the 20th century, with lawmakers still threatening impeachment but generally stopping short of actually initiating proceedings.
However, impeachment is being pursued more frequently again and, unlike in the past, when the grounds for such action was usually high crimes or malfeasance, now one party or the other’s disapproval of judges’ rulings appears to be a major motivator.
Bonneau said that threatens the integrity of the court system.
“When we start meddling with institutions simply because we don’t like a certain outcome, those institutions lose legitimacy,” he said. “If we want them to have independence, sometimes they’re going to do things we don’t like.” (GOVERNING)