CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A lifelong friend of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice was appointed to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to fill the seat of convicted former Justice Allen Loughry.
Justice made Raleigh County Circuit Judge John A. Hutchison his third appointee to a court rocked by an impeachment scandal.
Hutchison will serve until a 2020 special election. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of Loughry’s term through 2024.
Loughry’s resignation was effective Nov. 12, about a month after a federal jury convicted him on 11 charges. He was suspended from his seat earlier this year over allegations that he repeatedly lied and used his public office for personal gain.
“We’ve had a dog’s mess with our Supreme Court and we’ve lost a lot of credibility,” Justice said at the announcement in Beckley. “And really and truly, it was an embarrassment across the nation.”
Justice said he hopes Hutchison and the four other justices can “restore dignity and greatness” to the court.
Hutchison and Justice attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley and played on the basketball team together. Hutchison swore in Justice as governor in January 2017.
“For those folks that might think that I got this job because I’m your friend, I know this governor well enough to know that I wouldn’t have gotten this job had he not believed that I could do it.”
Hutchison has been a circuit judge since his appointment in 1995.
“Judge Hutchison is one of the most experienced and respected circuit judges in West Virginia,” Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman said in a statement. “I applaud the governor for making such a wise choice.”
Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016, but the court’s impeachment scandal stirred political attacks. Some Democrats argued the court’s shake-up was a power grab by the Republican-led legislature.
Former House of Delegates speaker Tim Armstead and ex-Congressman Evan Jenkins, both Republicans, won election to the bench three months after Justice appointed them to temporary seats. They’re filling the seats of Robin Davis, who retired after the House approved impeachment charges against her, and Menis Ketchum, who retired before the impeachment hearings.
Armstead will complete Ketchum’s term through 2020. Jenkins will serve through 2024.
West Virginia Democratic Party chairwoman Belinda Biafore said in a news release that Kanawha County Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit, who had received the most votes behind Jenkins and Armstead, should have been appointed to Loughry’s seat. Hutchison did not seek the seats vacated by Davis or Ketchum.
“With absolutely no disrespect to Justice’s appointee John Hutchinson, once again this appointment was made in spite of West Virginia voters,” Biafore said.
Workman, Davis, Loughry and Justice Beth Walker were impeached in August over questions involving lavish office renovations that evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty. Some of the justices were accused of abusing their authority by failing to rein in excessive spending.
Walker was cleared of an impeachment charge at her Senate trial in October.
A panel of judicial stand-ins ruled Oct. 11 in favour of Workman’s challenge of her impeachment, saying the Senate lacked jurisdiction to pursue the trial. The decision also was applied to Davis and Loughry. Workman’s Senate trial was postponed after the presiding judge didn’t show up in light of the court’s ruling blocking the trial.
The Senate then asked the court to revisit the ruling and the justices declined. Senate President Mitch Carmichael said two remaining options are appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court or crafting a proposed amendment to the state constitution that impeachment powers rest solely with the Legislature.
John Raby, The Associated Press