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Impeachment Trials Set To Begin For West Virginia's Supreme Court Justices

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The impeachment trials for all four sitting justices on West Virginia's Supreme Court begin today. Among the allegations against them are corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty. Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting has been following this story all along, and he's on the line. Good morning, Dave.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did we get here?

MISTICH: Well, there was this big scandal over spending on office renovations. Audits were released, an investigation from the state judicial investigations commission. Federal charges were handed down for two justices. And then we arrived at articles of impeachment, and now a trial in the West Virginia Senate. I should say this isn't without controversy in and of itself, though. Democrats are charging that there's a darker motive to all this. It's a Republican-led legislature, and Democrats say this all started with questionable behavior from a Republican and then it all just sort of spiraled out from there.

INSKEEP: OK. Although, you mentioned one significant fact. You said federal charges, meaning that professional federal prosecutors have looked into this and found something there it. It is not just Republican legislators looking at this?

MISTICH: That's absolutely right. There are charges of fraud, witness tampering, making false statements. Another justice has been charged with fraud for his use of a state vehicle for personal use.

INSKEEP: OK. But then there's that Democratic argument of a kind of judicial coup. What is the evidence the Democrats offer that this is political rather than essentially about the rule of law?

MISTICH: Sure. Well, the timing of the impeachment is suspicious to many Democrats. Accusations were well-known for a long time, particularly those against Justice Allen Loughry. He's a Republican. Calls for an investigation into his impeachment came back as far as January, but those calls were ignored. And because of the timing, if justices are removed in this trial, the governor gets to appoint justices who will sit on the bench for the remainder of those terms. He's already pointed to two big-name Republicans in the state to fill vacancies left by Democrats on the bench. Those are temporary. Our state's Supreme Court is elected, but they change the law a few years back to make those elections nonpartisan. So these appointments have certainly muddied the waters even more.

INSKEEP: OK. So it could very well be that there's something real in these charges, given how many people have looked into them, but it is causing Democrats to be replaced by Republicans in what some would see as a partisan way. Now, how does the impeachment work in West Virginia? I know on the federal level, there's a lower house that would vote impeachment then an upper house would convict or not. How's it work in West Virginia?

MISTICH: Well, the state senate serves as the jury. The House of Delegates has members who essentially act as the prosecution. What we've got today is a pre-trial with opening motions. There will be motions, at least one to dismiss, another to delay a trial until evidence can be looked over by that one justice's defense team. We're also still waiting to see if they will dismiss the case against Justice Robin Davis. She's a Democrat who retired from the court one day after being named in the articles of impeachment.

INSKEEP: So you've got lawmakers who act as prosecutors. You've got lawmakers who act as the jury here. When can we expect a verdict?

MISTICH: Well, we know that this is timed out to end by the time the legislative session rolls around in January. Other than that, we really have no idea how long each of these trials would last. They're going to be tried individually. But, really, no idea as far as when this will all wrap up.

INSKEEP: Dave, pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

MISTICH: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.