CHARLESTON – The Speaker of the House of Delegates and a former Supreme Court justice also are speaking out about the court’s recently revealed renovation spending.
WCHS/WVAH Eyewitness News reporter Kennie Bass first detailed the expenditures in a Nov. 13 report. Since 2009, the state Supreme Court offices have undergone extensive renovations. The original price tag was about $900,000. But it since has grown to more than $3.7 million.
Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s chambers has seen renovations to the tune of $363,000. That includes a sectional sofa that cost nearly $32,000 including $1,700 in throw pillows.
Currently, the state Supreme Court has no oversight of its budget by the Legislature. It submits a budget request to lawmakers, and it is approved “provided that no item relating to the judiciary shall be decreased.” West Virginia is the only state in the nation with such an arrangement. The judicial budget for this fiscal year is $142 million.
Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, says he also supports the idea of a resolution to have a constitutional amendment put to voters to give the Legislature more control of the judicial budget. Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Judiciary Chairman John Shott also have suggested that.
“I think everybody's upset about it and I don't think it's at all partisan,” Armstead, who is an attorney, told Bass. “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.
“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.
“So, I think that all those things coming together make this a good time for us to be able to do that.”
But former Justice Richard Neely says not so fast.
Neely told Hoppy Kercheval on the Nov. 17 edition of MetroNews’ “Talkline” radio show that while he doesn’t condone the excessive spending and doesn’t want to be critical of the current court, he said he doesn’t think there should be a rush to change how the judicial budget is handled.
“I think that the optics of this are very bad,” said Neely, who operates Neely & Callaghan in Charleston. “What I’m concerned with is the integrity of the judicial system in the long run. What I am interested in doing is making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“The people who framed our constitution were very smart. They realized that if an agency is dependent upon another agency to provide them with a budget, that they will basically do the bidding of the agency that gives them the money. It doesn’t make any difference what the institution is. It can be a private college, a charity, anything.
“So, the Supreme Court deliberately was given an independent budget not dependent on the Legislature. And the court always was extremely careful about budgeting because we all knew that the buck stopped with us and that we were completely responsible.
“So, while we did things that we thought really would help the judicial system, we did not overspend.”
Neely said in the grand scheme of things regarding most people’s everyday lives, the Supreme Court is “not terribly important.”
“It decides, from time to time, really important cases,” he told Kercheval. “But basically, all of the actions for ordinary people happens in the magistrate courts and the family courts. And these are the courts that have the fewest resources.
“Our family court judges have tremendous responsibility. They are very, very busy, and they are very badly paid. And magistrates are also extremely important.
“We are not talking about the budget of the Supreme Court — as a court. In other words, it’s not five people and their staffs. It is hundreds of people out there who are trying to get fire on the target,”
Neely served as a Justice from 1973 to 1995 and was chief justice several times. He said the court was frugal when he was there.
“Certainly that was never the way things were done during my tenure – and my tenure lasted 22 years – or before my tenure,” he said. “I remember living in the Supreme Court on a wonderful all-wool rug that had been bought … back in the ‘60s. And that rug was on the floor when I took the bar examination in 1967, and it was on the floor when I left the court in 1995.”