Attacks on judicial independence are becoming more frequent and more partisan. The current effort to impeach the entire West Virginia Supreme Court, while not unprecedented, is taking place against a backdrop of political attacks against judges elsewhere. “There’s a kind of a war going on between the legislatures and the courts,” says Chris Bonneau, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. “Absolutely, we’re seeing a new environment.” The West Virginia House last month voted to impeach all the sitting justices on the state Supreme Court. The state Senate is set to begin its impeachment trial Tuesday. There were legitimate reasons for legislators to go after justices, or at least some of them.
In June, Chief Justice Allen Loughry was charged with 22 criminal counts, including fraud and witness tampering. Two weeks ago, Justice Menis Ketchum pleaded guilty to fraud. The court as a whole has been accused of lavish spending, including purchases of expensive custom-made office furniture. This is also the court that triggered the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2009 that a justice should have recused himself from a case involving a coal company after it donated $3 million to his campaign.
“The West Virginia Supreme Court is kind of a battered one,” says Michael Nelson, a political scientist at Penn State University. “It’s a particularly weak court to attack because its credibility has been debated.”