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Laugh or cry? The case of West Virginia’s high-stakes political battle

West Virginia Legislature
West Virginia House of Representatives

There’s a classic scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch has to fight a much bigger, stronger, meaner but stupider lug for control of the gang. It’s pretty good. Watch it here if you don’t recall.

I thought of it when reading about the current knife fight between the Republican-controlled West Virginia Legislature and the state Supreme Court, which has a majority of Democrats. Both appear to be hopelessly corrupt, either in terms of old-fashioned I-paid-ridiculous-sums-to-redecorate-my-chambers money corruption or as in “all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and we want absolute power” corruption.

None of what follows is made up:

The Legislature and the court are at war, for various reasons, but one of them must be that they are controlled by different parties and in today’s America we’ve sorta lost the knack of compromising across party lines.

The account I’ll pass along, via Slate, starts with the stunning fact that the West Virginia Legislature impeached the entire West Virginia Supreme Court for spending too much on redecorating their offices. But, though impeached by the state House, they haven’t yet been tried in the state Senate. This turns into a lawsuit over whether the impeachment is improper, which gets appealed up to the Supreme Court, which currently consists of zero justices who are not currently impeached.

Some acting justices have been appointed and they have ruled that the impeachment by the House was improper. That was the state of play as of the writing of the Slate story I’ve linked to at the bottom.

Before I could post this, the effort to move on to the impeachment trial in the state Senate failed. The defendants (starting with the impeached chief justice) didn’t show up, nor did the guy who was supposed to preside over the Senate trial.

I won’t spoil all the twists this takes, and it ain’t over yet, and if you don’t live in West Virginia (and maybe if you do) it’s pretty hilarious — or perhaps tragicomic.

On a more serious note, it’s a hyper-example of what happens in a two-party system when the two parties can’t or won’t compromise and see everything as an all-or-nothing take-no-prisoners fight to the death.

As you may know, I’m a Constitution history nerd. In 1986, in preparation for the bicentennial of the Constitution, historian Michael Kammen wrote a history of that holy document titled “A Machine That Would Go of Itself,” which refers to the quasi-religious belief in the Constitution as so cleverly constructed and checked and balanced that it provided an answer to all our important national questions.

Kammen wasn’t endorsing the “go of itself” view; he was describing as a matter of American history and myth that the belief in the “go of itselfness” of the Constitution, and the respect that that created among us, the governed, was an important secret sauce in the long history of the system.

I’m pretty worried that the magic of that myth is wearing thin. My own belief that, cleverly designed as it may be, our system has always relied on a set of unwritten and not-really-enforceable norms that puts limits on how thoroughly our two parties will go to demonize and crush each other.

That said, here’s the Slate account of the knife fight in West Virginia, which leaves off before Monday’s events where the impeachment trial had to be scrapped, or put on hold — or whatever you may decide to call it.

And here’s a report from West Virginia TV news of the events of the day the impeachment trial in the state Senate had to be postponed.

Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Brian Gandt on 10/17/2018 - 09:29 am.

    My wife, a WV native, would say, “No surprise to me!”.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/17/2018 - 09:31 am.

    As I recall the movie, Butch’s solution was to fight dirty.
    Maybe Eric Holder saw the movie.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/17/2018 - 10:20 am.

    Here we see yet another reason why making judicial elections partisan is such a bad idea.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/17/2018 - 10:34 am.

    West Virginia out of 50 states:

    Income: 47th

    Educational attainment: 47th

    Life span: 42nd

    So, we’re talking (in blunt terms, sorry to say) poor, dumb and sick.
    As evidenced by their stubborn resistance to even voting for their own self interest in order to cure those problems. And why try when you can instead provide an entertaining, knock down drag out partisan fight over office remodeling. Even our GOP tried their best to make hay out of the MN Senate office building.

  5. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 10/17/2018 - 11:51 am.

    Uffda. Good thing we don’t put up with nonsense like that here in Minnesota.

    Next thing you know the governor of WV will line item veto the budget for the WV legislature.

  6. Submitted by Misty Martin on 10/17/2018 - 12:07 pm.


    I have been a resident of WV since the age of 6 mos., when my parents moved back here from a brief stay in NC where I was born. And I find the present state of events which you describe in this article “tragicomic” and I am both laughing and crying at the same time, lol.

    Good ol’ West Virginia – Trump country. I really don’t fit in anymore, considering how I feel about President Trump and his whole band of followers. And yes, our state government is a laugh at the present. One good thing about West Virginia, a state I love, besides its natural beauty and the general friendliness of its residents, is that we are generally safe from hurricanes and tornadoes, being nestled as we are in these mountains. As John Denver sang in his hit, “Country Roads”, West Virginia, “Mountain Momma”. “Almost Heaven”? Sometimes, but we need a complete over-haul in our state government, to be sure.

    And to Mr. Edward Blaise: I may be poor right now, and my health has seen better days to be sure, but I am NOT dumb.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/17/2018 - 01:07 pm.

    Speaking as an outsider, both laughter and tears seem appropriate. Beyond that, however, RB Holbrook has once again nailed it. That said, I very much enjoy Edward Blaise’s take. Why govern at all when you can instead fill plenty of newsprint and air time with trivial and spiteful conflict?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/18/2018 - 11:06 am.

      In a surprising bit of pre-election candor, Mitch McConnell made a comment on how his “certain to pay for it self” tax cut has now led to exploding deficits. He commented on how the only way to really address these deficits are to reduce Social Security and Medicare entitlements. Not a word about how maybe, just maybe, in a time of a good economy we should not have passed a tax cut; but rather, worked on a solution for sustaining Social Security and Medicare.

      Likely the only President more popular than Trump in West Virginia history was FDR. FDR recognized the needs of working folks and the elderly and put in place jobs programs to get folks back to work during the height of the depression and instituted Social Security to help those to old to work. At least the people of West Virginia could recognize their self interest in the 1930s. Now they believe in tax cuts that will negatively effect the Social Security and Medicare benefits they still desperately need and accept that the real culprit in all of their troubles are people who look different and hold different religious and political values than themselves.

  8. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/18/2018 - 02:37 am.

    There was an interesting story recently, can’t recall where from, that describes the journey of WV once having one of the highest voting rates in the nation to its current place as one of the lowest. This is partly a result of corruption from members of both parties – to rephrase this author, both the “blatantly stealing from the tax coffers” type of corruption, and the stealthier “forgetting about all my campaign promises to seek further influence” type of corruption. People won’t vote when the people they vote for make it perfectly clear that it’s all a joke, and the screwjob on the voters is the punchline.

    As much as we might look at WV as a tragicomedy, or something else, I keep thinking of a work by the first Minnesotan to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sinclair Lewis: “It Can’t Happen Here!” We like to think that outside of WV (or Florida, etc), that our system is nowhere near as corruptible. That we have checks and balances, a different culture, a collective desire for responsible governance. I think we would be truly remiss to simply assume that what has happened in WV could never happen here. We might be much more perilously close than we would like to think.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/18/2018 - 09:39 am.

      A lot of Badgers thought it couldn’t happen there either.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/18/2018 - 11:19 am.

        Saw an anti Angie Craig ad that blasted he for supporting special tax advantages for medical device companies. Well, yes, I could see as an employee of St Jude Medical she would support ERIK PAULSEN’S bill to enable this.

        Since Erik could hardly attack himself on he same issue, he went after selfless community leaders who have served on the boards of non-profits, like the nefarious Dean Phillips, only to get slapped down by community leaders Paulsen used to praise in a Strib commentary.

        The depth of distortion on both sides, but led by the GOP in his election is, if not unprecedented, at least relentless.

        And both the Paulsen and Lewis ads were funded by the same GOP PAC.

  9. Submitted by Gary Fredrickson on 10/20/2018 - 12:04 am.

    Edward Blaise comments, “The Paulsen and Lewis ads were funded by the same GOP PAC” and “distortion on both sides, but led by the GOP” and he seems to agree that tax cuts have led to exploding deficits. Point of view is everything I guess. To say that both parties spend like drunken sailors is an insult to drunken sailors. Tax cuts and the resulting better economy has led to an increase in collected income tax revenues including social security. [Over] Spending has led to deficits before and after the cuts.Social security funds were raided by both parties I think but mainly by the democrats that were in control of congress for so many years. From my perspective, both sides bend the truth but it seems much more on the Dem’s side. Jason Lewis was accused of taking money from big business and millionaires by the same people who take money from George Soros and Hollywood celebrities. Just sayin’.

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