Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes: The West Virginia Supreme Court Needs To Address Its Corruption Problem

The headlines wrote themselves: a $32,000 couch (complete with $1,000 worth of throw pillows). A $10,000 payment to a private attorney to “ghostwrite” a court opinion. Illegal overpayments to former colleagues in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public outcry erupted in late 2017 when news broke that the justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) had spent lavishly on office renovations. Further investigations revealed that some justices had used state-owned vehicles and government credit cards for personal use. Three of the justices were accused of scheming to overpay retired judges who were contracted by the judiciary to fill in on the trial courts in times of vacancy or high caseloads. But the most brazen allegations were leveled against Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who was convicted of wire fraud and obstructing an investigation into his enriching himself at taxpayer expense—despite the modest fame and fortune he (ironically) earned as the author of a book on political corruption in West Virginia.

The pervasiveness and diversity of the misdeeds on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals over the past few years suggest that the corruption was in many ways a cultural problem. But it’s worth noting that the most serious allegations of corruption were likely not actually criminal. A quirk in West Virginia’s law gave the Supreme Court near-total control over its own budget, paving the way for the unchecked spending. Likewise, the intentional overpayments to retired judges reeked of cronyism but may or may not have been illegal; while a statute capped payments to part-time judges, the judiciary still arguably retained ultimate control how and how much to spend.

In response to the revelations of corruption, West Virginia’s government settled on two aggressive solutions. First, in August 2018 the West Virginia House of Delegates approved 11 articles of impeachment against the four justices still on the court and scheduled trials for each of them before the State Senate to determine if they should be removed from office. (The normally five-member court was already down a justice, who resigned in July a few weeks before pleading guilty to federal fraud charges.) The impeachment proceedings were met with outrage by some commentators (see here, here, and here), who saw them as a partisan power grab. Questionable motives aside, the results of the impeachment charges were still a mixed bag: one justice resigned from the Supreme Court before her trial. Another was acquitted of all charges but formally censured by the State Senate in a lopsided vote. The other two justices escaped any impeachment trial after an interim slate of state Supreme Court justices threw out the impeachment charges against their fellow justices on technical grounds. Chief Justice Loughry resigned following conviction in federal court (that makes three resignations overall, if you’re keeping count), and the legislature backed down from further impeachments. Second, after the impeachments, West Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that wrested control over the judiciary’s budget away from the Supreme Court, giving the legislature the power to cap the judiciary’s annual spending, so long as the total amount is no less than 85% of the previous year’s budget.

But even if these measures work precisely as planned, the problem in West Virginia is far from solved. The damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy has been severe. A common refrain states that judges “like Caesar’s wife, must not only be virtuous but above suspicion.” And Chief Justice Loughry—of all people—echoed this same bold claim in his book: “Of all the criminal politicians in West Virginia, the group that shatters the confidence of the people the most is a corrupt judiciary…. It is essential that people have the absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our system of justice.”

Unfortunately, the remedies implemented thus far serve only the short-sighted goals of stopping yesterday’s corruption. What is missing in the aftermath of the West Virginia scandals is a concerted effort on rebuilding trust in the judiciary. As previous scandals in the public and private sectors suggest, regaining trust in the judiciary requires public remedial actions by the judiciary itself. Replacing certain justices and adding high level legislative oversight may have been appropriate, even essential, measures, but they don’t necessarily help the court restore its integrity and repair its tarnished reputation. Moreover, focusing exclusively on these externally-imposed remedies may send a signal that the judiciary can’t be trusted to handle its own affairs. This makes it all the more imperative that the judiciary take the initiative in addressing its cultural problem and rebuilding public trust in the courts. A willingness to accept responsibility for past mistakes and engage in transparent self-evaluation will be critical as the West Virginia Supreme Court begins its new term this month. In particular, there are two steps the Court could take that would be helpful: Continue reading

Depoliticizing the Removal of Heads of Anticorruption Agencies

In December 2017, a civil society organization that aligns itself with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made good on its threat to submit an impeachment complaint against Conchita Carpio Morales, head of the Philippines’ independent anticorruption agency (ACA), known as the Office of the Ombudsman. This came after President Duterte himself called for the impeachment of Ombudsman Morales, publicly accusing her of engaging in “selective justice” and of being part of a “conspiracy” to oust him. Notably, President Duterte leveled these accusations at a time when the Office of the Ombudsman had opened an investigation into the Duterte family’s alleged hidden wealth, and into a multi-billion peso illegal drug trafficking case that implicates President Duterte’s son. This is hardly a unique case. In Nigeria, Nepal and Ukraine, among other places, conflicts between politicians and ACA heads have resulted in the latter’s actual or threatened removal.

Unfortunately, most countries place the decision whether to remove an ACA head in the hands of their politicians (see here and here). The Chief Executive often plays a key role in removals—sometimes on his or her sole authority (as in Afghanistan, Brazil, Botswana, South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Tanzania), or in conjunction with the legislature (as in Uganda and Lithuania) or a judicial body (as in Ghana and Kenya). In most other cases, the power of removal is exercised by parliament or any of its members or ministers, often through an “impeachment” process of some kind. Only Barbados, Bangladesh, and Yemen have removal procedures for ACA heads that are strictly and purely judicial in nature.

While there are, at present, no universally-accepted standards against which ACAs are measured, the non-binding 2012 Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies lays out principles for states to follow in establishing or maintaining effective ACAs. The Jakarta Statement’s position on appropriate procedures for removing an ACA head may be influential in shaping how at least some countries address this issue. And because the Jakarta Statement is currently being revisited (see here and here), now is an opportune time to consider revising its provision regarding the removal of ACA heads.

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State-Level Responses to Trump’s Business Conflicts: A More Promising Line of Attack?

It is genuinely alarming how much Donald Trump seems intent—in true kleptocratic/crony capitalist style—on using his position as President to advance the commercial and financial interests of himself, his immediate family members, and their various business enterprises. As I’ve written before, this approach to governance (if you can call it that) has plenty of precedents elsewhere in the world, but it’s a new experience for Americans. One hopes the U.S. electorate will come to its senses and throw the bum out in four years, but that’s a long way away. In the meantime, the hope that the President might be impeached over his possibly unconstitutional conflicts of interest seems profoundly unrealistic: Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and most Republicans actually seem quite happy to accommodate themselves to a Trump Administration if it enables them to advance their policy goals. Even those Republicans who find Trump’s conduct inexcusable are far more worried about a primary challenge supported by Trump’s rabid supporters than they are about the general electorate. For the same reason, proposals for new federal legislation that would strengthen ethical restraints on the President, whatever their symbolic value, are likely dead-on-arrival as practical proposals. Perhaps understandably, some anticorruption advocates have placed their hopes in the federal courts, most notably through lawsuits alleging that the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, though for reasons I have explained in previous posts (see here and here), I’m doubtful that such lawsuits have much chance of success.

This is all very depressing, and I acknowledge that in the short term there’s relatively little that can be done; the ultimate remedy will have to be through the electoral process. Nonetheless, I do think that the ideas of enacting new legislation and pursuing certain forms of litigation do hold some promise as means to impose significant constraints on Trumpian corruption. The problem with the proposals I noted above is that they involve proposed responses at the federal level, and for the most part they target the President himself. There’s an alternative, though: Litigation and legislation at the state level, targeting Trump’s business interests and their potential commercial partners. Though hardly a complete solution, there may be a number of things to do at the state level to constrain at least some of the abuses associated with politically-connected business interests that seek to leverage those political connections for commercial advantage, or to facilitate corrupt or otherwise unlawful conduct. To illustrate, let me note a couple of ideas that other experts have floated about how aggressive state attorneys general (or perhaps private litigants) might make use of existing state laws to target Trumpian corruption: Continue reading

Donald Trump Will Probably Violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause. So What?

Those of us who are still reeling from the shock and horror of Donald Trump’s election are going through many of the typical stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, etc. To these I’d add an additional stage of (political) grief, which seems to disproportionately afflict my fellow law professors: the desperate concoction of legally plausible but politically dead-on-arrival constitutional theories designed to stop Trump from becoming President (or stop him from doing lots of the things he wants to do).

Enter the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8), which provides that “no person holding any office [of the United States government] … shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Many legal scholars, including my colleague Larry Tribe, as well as a number of legal ethics experts, have argued (persuasively, in my view) that Donald Trump’s global business dealings may well put him in violation of this Clause: If any foreign state pays above-market-value for any goods or services provided by the Trump business empire, or does any other favor (with a cash value) designed to benefit President Trump’s businesses, that could well be deemed a “present … of any kind.” The wording of the Emoluments Clause is broad: It does not require a quid pro quo, it does not require a showing that the gift was intended to influence a decision or an expression of gratitude for a decision already made. In contrast to the conflict-of-interest statutes, there is no explicit exemption from the Foreign Emoluments Clause for the President (though some scholars have sought to argue that the President is not covered, for reasons I don’t find all that persuasive). Furthermore, the “of any kind” modifier would seem to defeat many of the otherwise-plausible claims that the terms “present” and “emolument” should be read narrowly. (I imagine that there might still be a “de minimis” exception from the Emoluments Clause, allowing for ceremonial gifts of various kinds, but that’s not really what we’re talking about in the Trump case.) Though I’m no expert, based on what I’ve read thus far I’m prepared to accept the claim that should foreign governments provide benefits to the Trump Organization while Donald Trump is President—including paying above-market-rates, or steering business to Trump’s companies—then President Trump would be in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.

The question is: So what? What’s the remedy for this constitutional violation?

There are three possibilities—a judicial remedy, an “elite” political remedy, and a public opinion remedy. None of them seems especially promising. Continue reading