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Partisan Sentiments Over Impeachments Linger As W.Va. Senate Downs Separation Of Powers Amendment

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, speaks against Senate Joint Resolution 7 on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.
Will Price
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, speaks against Senate Joint Resolution 7 on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

More than a year after a temporary bench of the West Virginia Supreme Court derailed the 2018 impeachment trials of justices of the state’s high court, Republican leaders of the Legislature still have work ahead of themselves to undo the decision they see as unjust. A Wednesday vote indicates that lingering partisan sentiments continue to surround the impeachments.

The West Virginia Senate voted 20-13 along party lines Wednesday to reject a resolution that would have proposed a constitutional amendment to further define the separation of powers between the three branches of state government. 

As a joint resolution, the measure needed a two-thirds majority in the Senate to advance to the House of Delegates. It would have needed the same supermajority in the House before heading to the general public for ratification.

Senate Joint Resolution 7, known as the “Preserving the Separation of Powers Amendment” proposed to add one clause to the West Virginia Constitution.

“The courts of this state have no authority by mandamus, prohibition, contempt, or otherwise to interfere with the proceedings of either house of the Legislature,” the resolution states. 

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee worked the measure last week before a second reference to Finance was waived. 

The proposal sought to undo what has been seen as a controversial decision by an ad hoc bench of the state’s high court. Temporary justices granted a writ of prohibition that effectively halted the then-ongoing impeachment trials. 

In August 2018, The House of Delegates adopted Article of Impeachment, accusing the justices of lavish spending on office renovations and failing to hold one another accountable. A few short months later, Justice Beth Walker was tried, acquitted and publicly reprimanded through a censure resolution.

But then-Chief Justice Margaret Workman challenged her impeachment by appealing to the temporary high court. In the decision Workman v. Carmichael, the court ruled that Workman and the other justices had no jurisdiction over the alleged violations that lead to their impeachment. The decision also said the House failed to follow proper procedure. 

Ultimately, the impeachments were ruled unconstitutional. Lawmakers appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the court passed on taking up the case in October 2019.

Republicans like Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, see the decision as making the judicial branch superior to the Legislature.

“In the history of the Republic, as far as anyone has ever been able to determine, has the judiciary — in any state or the federal government — taken the extraordinary step of invading the exclusive authority of the legislative branch of the government to conduct impeachment proceedings,” Trump said on the Senate floor as he explained the resolution. “What the court did in this case — the temporarily assigned court in Workman v. Carmichael — is absolutely without precedent and without any foundation of legal opinion or basis.”

While Republicans have questioned the effect of the decision in Workman v. Carmichael, Democrats expressed concerns over whether Senate Joint Resolution 7 was too broad and could have unduly shifted favor to the legislative branch. 

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said he believes that the Workman v. Carmichael decision was appropriate in stating that the Supreme Court had oversight of its budget at the time and that the House overstepped its bounds in impeaching the justices. He also stated that he believes attempts to amend the Constitution are too frequent.

“I believe the Constitution is sacred. I believe the judiciary has to have a free hand to decide whether or not there's a particular case it's going to hear or not hear. And I think they've done a great job for the past 200 plus years for our country, and the past almost 200 years for our state,” Romano said. “I think we drop constitutional amendments a little too freely in this Legislature. The Constitution is an instrument that has been tried over the decades and the centuries and we shouldn't try to interfere with it because of one particular case.” 

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, expressed disappointment over Wednesday’s vote. He noted that no Democrats voted in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 7.

"It's unfortunate there's a party line vote. There's no one on the other side of the aisle that doesn't believe we have a problem when the Supreme Court tells you how to conduct your business," Carmichael said after Wednesday’s floor session.

He said the implications of the Workman v. Carmichael could be far reaching and that he will continue to search for a remedy that reiterates the legislative branch’s role in impeachment. 

“So often we think, ‘Okay, this one case occurred and now there's a precedent for it and so forth,’” Carmichael said. “But people don't really see around the corner as to how this can be so distorted, so abused and so strips our freedom and our ability to function as a democracy. I don't want to be alarmist [because] we will try to work through the system as it is in place. It is a travesty of judicial overreach that this occurred.” 

Republican leaders still have time this session to attempt to find a remedy to Workman v. Carmichael that would suit Democrats. The 60 day session ends Saturday, March 7 at midnight.

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