CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice’s weekend appointments of Congressman Evan Jenkins and Tim Armstead, former speaker of the House of Delegates, to the state Supreme Court are coming in for criticism.
Belinda Biafore, who heads the state Democratic Party, said the appointments announced at a Charleston news conference on Saturday are the kind of partisanship Justice had promised to avoid when he ran for governor in 2016. Justice, elected as a Democrat, returned to the GOP last year.
“Jim Justice misled the voters of West Virginia and is ignoring the wishes of the public,” Biafore said in a statement. “Governor Justice has become a political sellout who puts the Republican Party over the will of the people.”
Both Jenkins and Armstead will serve interim terms but will join a crowded field seeking full terms in the special judicial election that will happen Nov. 6, the same day as the general election. The two are set to be sworn in as justices in mid-September, following a 20-day comment period.
Leigh Koonce, the chairman of the Jefferson County Democrats, said that with the Supreme Court vacancies on the ballot so soon, Justice should have appointed former justices to the state’s high court to fill in, then allowed state voters to make their selections.
Better short-term appointees to the court, according to Koonce, would have been Thomas E. McHugh, who served from 1980 until 1997, and Larry Starcher, who served from 1997 to 2008.
“It would have been the best of both worlds,” Koonce said. “That way, there would be sufficient justices to hear cases and then the people of West Virginia could have selected who they wish to serve for the next couple of years.”
At the morning ceremony in the Governor’s Office at the Capitol, Justice described his interim appointees as a way to bring stability to the court.
The court’s disarray follows one of state’s largest ever public corruption scandals rooted in office redecoration and other lavish spending, with three justices on the five-member panel under impeachment while the other two – also under fire – have opted to retire.
One of the impeached justices – Allen Loughry, a Republican from Tucker County who rose to prominence largely on the strength of his 2006 self-published book, “Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid And Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia” – also faces a federal indictment that’s grown to 25 counts.
Justice said he selected Armstead and Jenkins in part because they would run for full terms. “We don’t need to be in a state of flux,” he said Saturday. “I wanted someone who was willing to run again.
“What we need to do more than anything is repair, move on and show the nation how committed we are as West Virginians to have a solid court and, in my opinion, without any question, a conservative court.”
But the two men Justice selected “lack significant courtroom experience and carry thin legal resumes,” Biafore said in her statement, adding that Justice “took the Supreme Court seats of two elected Democrats and replaced them with Republican foot soldiers.” Koonce agreed. “I’m very concerned, as I think many West Virginians are, that our governor has appointed two hyper-partisan politicians to a deliberative body which should be inherently apolitical,” he said.
Justice appointed Armstead to the Division 1 seat held by Menis Ketchum and Jenkins to the Division 2 seat held by Justice Robin Davis until the two retired earlier this summer.
While West Virginia switched to nonpartisan judicial elections in 2016, Democrat Margaret Workman and Ketchum, Davis and Loughry all were elected in partisan races.
Justice Beth Walker, elected to a 12-year term in the high court’s first nonpartisan race on May 10, 2016, .had run for the court as a Republican in 2008. Ketchum and Workman won the two open seats, with Walker finishing third.
Armstead has resigned as Speaker and as a Delegate for the 40th District. Jenkins – who gave up seeking another term in Congress in his failed try for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Joe Manchin – said Saturday he will resign from the House of Representatives to accept the appointment.
Ketchum, 75, last week entered a guilty plea in federal court to a felony count of fraud related to his personal use of a state vehicle and gas fuel card in a 400-mile trip to a private golf course near Bristol, Va. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. His sentencing comes Dec. 6.
The indictment against Loughry includes charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, lying to federal law enforcement, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. His trial is set for Oct. 2.
The retirements of Ketchum and Davis ahead of the Aug. 14 deadline for justices to step down or be removed means their replacements will be decided by voters, not the governor. The high court announced its fall term has been pushed back a month to October.
– the Associated Press contributed to this report