The West Virginia Senate is working to undo a decision by a temporary bench of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals that effectively prevents justices of the state’s high court from being impeached and standing trial.
Members of the upper chamber’s Judiciary Committee advanced a joint resolution — a potential constitutional amendment — that would remedy the 2018 impeachments that ultimately fizzled out.
The hope is to reiterate the separation of powers doctrine between the three branches of government found in the Constitution.
The proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 7, comes less than two years after the House of Delegates impeached the entire state Supreme Court over lavish spending on office renovations and instances of maladministration.
Although Justice Beth Walker was tried, acquitted and censured in a Court of Impeachment, the remaining trials were halted when then-Chief Justice Margaret Workman filed suit to challenge her own impeachment.
An ad hoc bench of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled, in October 2018 in the case State ex. rel. Workman v. Carmichael that Workman’s impeachment was unconstitutional. The decision also applied to the other looming impeachments.
Leaders of both houses of the Legislature took issue with the decision and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said at the time it would cause “irreparable and lasting damage to the constitutional system of government.”
Lawmakers appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the nation’s high court decided in October 2019 not to hear the case.
Senate Joint Resolution 7 would add one clause to Article V, Section 1 of 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.
While committee members discussed the decision by the ad hoc bench in Workman’s suit, some Democrats took issue with the breadth of the proposed constitutional amendment.
Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, argued that the proposed change to the constitution would overcompensate in trying to remedy the 2018 decision that nullified the impeachments.
“This is a bazooka when we need a flyswatter,” Lindsay said in Wednesday’s committee meeting.
He said he supported a pared down resolution last year that specifically addressed the Supreme Court’s potential to interfere in impeachment proceedings, but said this year’s proposal was too broad.
Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the resolution reiterated the separation of powers in a clear way and shouldn't be constrained to only dealing with issues of impeachment.
“In my opinion, the Workman v. Carmichael decision — decided by the temporary Supreme Court — was the grossest invasion by one department or branch of the government into another that that I've seen in West Virginia, maybe. Maybe ever,” Trump said.
Trump noted he pulled the language for Senate Joint Resolution from a 2010 Supreme Court decision, State ex rel. Holmes v. Clawges, that was ultimately overturned by the 2018 decision on impeachment.
“The more I thought about that Workman v. Carmichael decision, the breadth of the wreckage it created to the separation of powers could not be fixed by an amendment just to the article and section of the Constitution that relates to impeachment,” he added.
Senate Joint Resolution 7 now heads to the upper chamber’s Finance Committee for consideration before going to the floor.
Should the measure clear the Legislature with a two-thirds majority of both houses, West Virginia voters would decide in the upcoming November election whether to include the language in the Constitution.