The Curious Case of the $32,000 Couch 

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Mal·ad·min·is·tra·tion — n. (formal) : inefficient or dishonest administration; mismanagement.

In 2006, while serving as a law clerk for the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, Allen H. Loughry authored a book titled, Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid And Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia.

Six years later, he was elected by the people of West Virginia as a justice on the same court, and on January 1, 2017, he became Chief Justice. 

On June 20, 2018, Loughry was impeached by the West Virginia House for mind-boggling corruption of his own. Today, he is “living history” — facing impeachment and up to 390 years in prison. 

However, this was only the beginning of the truly continuing history of political corruption in West Virginia’s Supreme Court. What began with a revelation of Loughry’s excessive spending on an office remodel — including the purchase of a $32,000 couch — implicated all five of the standing members of the Mountain State’s highest court. Now, three of them face impeachment trials, while the other two resigned to avoid the ugly proceedings into their potentially criminal “maladministration.”

The majority of the charges revolve around lavish spending on their offices — partly a product of the lack of oversight on judicial budgets in West Virginia. Laurie Lin (@WVPundette), a columnist for West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail and former attorney, has been following the story carefully. Earlier this month, she recapped the depressing yet almost comical saga in a teleforum hosted by The Federalist Society, and fielded questions on the political implications of such a blatant abuse of power.

It’s easy to blame judicial elections for such widespread corruption. We know that voters are largely ignorant. Furthermore, elections could create incentives for judges to favor those who give to their campaigns. But in this case, the maladministration seems to have simply come from a unique culture of corruption within the courthouse — specifically around office expenditures. In addition to the infamous $32,000 sofa, one justice had renovated her office with a tacky Egyptian theme, meaning that her successor had to spend significant sums just to restore it to something normal. This quickly snowballed into a culture of personalizing offices to an absurd degree.

Now, Governor Jim Justice is replacing the justices who resigned with temporary appointees — both from his own party (Republican) — and Democrats in the House are calling foul play. While this story may seem beyond odd to outsiders of West Virginia politics, it comes as little surprise to the state’s residents. Wikipedia provides some helpful pretext for West Virginia’s political bizarro world:

“In 2015, Justice switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and announced his candidacy for Governor in the 2016 election. He ran as a Democrat and defeated the Republican nominee, Bill Cole. Less than seven months after taking office, Justice switched back to the Republican Party the day after announcing his plans at a President Trump rally in the state.”
— Wikipedia page for Jim Justice

Soon enough, the voters of West Virginia will have a chance to elect new judges to the two to five vacant seats that will be left in the wake of the judicial crisis. They’ve already repealed the part of the constitution that enables the judiciary to get away with unaccountable spending on couches, Egyptian-themed offices, and the like. But a broader debate remains over the merits of electing judges versus appointing them, under a system sometimes known as merit selection.