AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It was earlier this year that all of the justices of the West Virginia state Supreme Court were impeached. The reason? Accusations of lavish office renovations and mismanagement of state funds. But now, just as their impeachment trials were getting underway, the proceedings have come to an abrupt halt. And the state is in the middle of a constitutional showdown. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Dave Mistich has the story.
DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: On Monday, state Senate President Mitch Carmichael gaveled in to begin the second of the impeachment trials, this one for Chief Justice Margaret Workman.
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MITCH CARMICHAEL: The chair calls the acting Chief Justice Farrell to the chair.
MISTICH: But here's the thing - the acting chief justice wasn't there. And an awkward silence fell over the chamber.
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CARMICHAEL: With acting Chief Justice Farrell being absent, the court of impeachment will remain adjourned until its presiding officer is present.
MISTICH: The impeachment trials came to a screeching halt last week with a ruling from a temporary state Supreme Court. The ad hoc bench wrote in an opinion that the charges against Chief Justice Margaret Workman were unconstitutional. The 65-page opinion is complicated, but here's what you need to know. They said the House had overstepped its authority on certain charges and was flawed in its procedure. Here's West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw.
ROGER HANSHAW: We believe that if the opinion is allowed to stand, it will do irreparable and lasting damage to the constitutional system of government that's laid out in our state constitution. We will effectively no longer have any separation of powers in West Virginia.
MISTICH: Hanshaw, who helped oversee the impeachment process and is a trained parliamentarian, says, yes, it was within the House's power to impeach the justices for what they did. With the legislative and judicial branches at a standoff, some are calling this a constitutional crisis. Others...
BOB BASTRESS: I would describe it more as a constitutional challenge.
MISTICH: That's Bob Bastress. He's a constitutional law professor at West Virginia University. We should disclose that Bastress' wife is a Democrat in the House of Delegates. I asked him if he'd ever seen anything like this before.
BASTRESS: (Laughter) Not that I recall. There certainly have been Supreme Court/legislative confrontations over the years in other states, not around impeachment.
MISTICH: Impeachments, he says, are inherently political. Democratic lawmakers here say this process with the state's high court has been fraught with heavy-handedness from the Republicans, who have the majority. Delegate Mike Pushkin, a Democrat in the West Virginia House, was the first to call attention to now-suspended Justice Allen Loughry. But when things started moving almost six months later, Pushkin was immediately suspicious.
MIKE PUSHKIN: I thought it was wrong of the governor to - in the first proclamation of a special session to make it about the entire Supreme Court. I kind of, like, smelled that we were going to get in a little bit of trouble with such a broad-based resolution.
MISTICH: He and other Democrats say the most egregious spending and questionable behavior came from Loughry, not the other four members of the court. Last week, Loughry was convicted on 11 counts of federal charges.
PUSHKIN: You know what? A Republican justice broke the law and has been found guilty of it, and they weren't good with that. They weren't just good with that. They went further, and they wanted to take out the entire court.
MISTICH: With impeachment trials on hold, the Senate says they plan to ask the ad hoc court to reconsider its position. The other option would be to start the process all over in the House. Bob Bastress, the constitutional law professor, says he won't speculate on the outcome.
BASTRESS: I'm not very good at projecting what will happen in an instant - in situation which is highly politically charged. And, of course, we're on the cusp of an election. And how that affects decision-making is rather unpredictable.
MISTICH: With the situation likely to remain unresolved until after the election, where things go from here could very well depend on the makeup of the next legislature. For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Charleston, W.V.
(SOUNDBITE OF DECLAIME AND GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW'S "PAD KONTROL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.