West Virginia Supreme Court spending – Part 3

West Virginia lawmakers are considering making a constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers control of the judiciary’s budget. (WCHS/WVAH)

Our exclusive Eyewitness News investigation into West Virginia Supreme Court spending is still generating reaction at the capitol and throughout the state.

On Thursday, House Speaker Tim Armstead shared his thoughts about the situation and discussed a possible constitutional amendment which would give lawmakers control of the judiciary’s budget.

By now, the blue, sectional sofa in Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s chambers has become the star of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals spending story. It carried a nearly $32,000 price tag, $8,500 for the couch and $23,000 plus for the fabric.

It's just one example of a number of questionable purchases by the court during a decade of renovations and remodeling.

Legislative leaders have been taking note of the situation and they are not pleased.

“I think everybody's upset about it and I don't think it's at all partisan. And frankly, the Republicans have, you know, one of the things we have taken on is efficiency in government and trying to root out things like this and address them,” Armstead said.

Armstead said people want the legislature to do something about the court's spending practices. However, that's not possible because a section of the West Virginia Constitution clearly states that while lawmakers have the power to amend the state budget bill, quote, "Provided that no item related to the judiciary shall be decreased."

Senators and delegates handle the state's purse strings, except where the court system is concerned. West Virginia is the only state where the judiciary has total control over its spending. It would take a constitutional amendment to change that.

“I think the last few years and the budget challenges that we've had have focused a lot more attention on spending. And then I think also, people learning about this extravagant spending has made them much more concerned about, you know in other branches for example like you said, I think that kind of extravagant spending would have come to light already. And I think the fact that it comes to light is a deterrent for other people to do in the future. So, I think that all those things coming together make this a good time for us to be able to do that,” Armstead said.

While it isn't commonplace, changing the constitution happens more often than you think. Voters did just that this year when they approved the governor's road bond initiative.

“Each year there are numerous joint resolutions introduced for the purpose of amending the constitution. Probably on average 30-some. I believe this past session we had 30-some introduced. Only one was adopted. So, a lot of proposed constitutional amendments are made each session but very seldom, only every few years do we normally see a constitutional amendment actually adopted and make it to the ballot,” West Virginia House of Delegates Clerk Steve Harrison said.

While constitutional amendments are needed for various government actions, Harrison said proposals which alter the very machinery of our democracy and budgetary processes are far less common.

“The lasting historical value of a constitutional amendment, while it could be changed again later, it does tend to be more permanent than a law. A law can be enacted one year and a couple of years later they change their minds and by simple legislation, they can change that. But a constitutional amendment is usually around a while,” Harrison said.

There have been previous attempts to amend the constitution to place the judiciary budget under legislative control. They have not succeeded.

“It should be the way that we set our budget. Every agency is set forth in priorities just like the other agencies are. And they have to come forward and say, here's how we would spend this money. Here's why we need it and justify that to the finance committees and to the house and the Senate as a whole. And to the governor, frankly, when it comes to signing the budget. So, that's a way it should work anyway. But I think that what has happened recently makes it even more crucial and brings it to the forefront,” Armstead said.

Armstead said people concerned about a separation of powers should remember the legislature already controls every aspect of the budget, except for the court system. That includes the executive branch spending, which falls under the house and senate. He said that has seemed to work out pretty well since the state was founded.

“People may be critical of their government, but I don't believe that this legislation would ever use, misuse the power to determine the court's budget simply because they didn't like something the court did. I don't believe that would occur. And if it did occur, I think the people would know about it and they would take action,” Armstead said.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael has already signaled his support for a constitutional amendment to place the judiciary’s budget under the control of the legislature.

So far, Gov. Justice has declined to comment on the Supreme Court spending.

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