Members of the West Virginia House of Delegates are still upset with the result of the 2018 impeachment of the West Virginia Supreme Court, and subsequent executive actions by Gov. Jim Justice have reduced the state’s legislative branch to “a social club,” one delegate said Friday.
The House Judiciary Committee approved House Joint Resolution 2, which is meant to prevent the state’s judicial branch from interfering in impeachment proceedings in the Legislature.
It’s the third time in the nearly three years since the Legislature impeached justices on the state Supreme Court that lawmakers have sought to amend the state constitution to say the Legislature has the final say in impeachment proceedings.
“Sometimes the judiciary gets it wrong,” said Judiciary Vice Chairman Tom Fast, R-Fayette. “When that happens, there’s not anything anyone can do about it ... We are not blurring the lines of separation of powers. We are confirming the separation of powers.”
The committee also discussed House Bill 2003, which would redefine and put restrictions on the governor’s use of his executive powers when the governor has declared a state of emergency or state of preparedness. The committee meeting Friday afternoon ended before Judiciary members finished their work on House Bill 2003, which they will take up when the committee reconvenes Saturday morning.
Both bills spoke to the matter of how much control the Legislature has, particularly when it comes to impeachment and setting the state’s budget, both defined in the state constitution as being responsibilities of the legislative body.
Between the abrupt halt, due to a court order, of the 2018 impeachment, and Gov. Jim Justice’s office distributing federal CARES Act money for COVID-19 relief, lawmakers have said of both matters that the other two branches of government are impeding on their authority as the legislative branch.
“We need to restore our own rightful power as a legislative branch because since [the 2018 court ruling] the legislative branch has essentially been reduced to a social club,” Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, said of the resolution Friday. “The impeachment powers are the last line of defense we have in the state constitution. We have to pass this to ensure that we take our place again to be able to enforce this kind of power and the threat of it when the other branches of government violate the law.”
House Joint Resolution 2 seeks to undo the legal precedent set in 2018 in the case of Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman vs. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, styled as Workman v. Carmichael.
In that case, the Supreme Court, comprised of justices who had been appointed for that case, ruled that the House had violated former justice Margaret Workman’s right to due process by adopting the articles of impeachment in separate resolutions, instead of one resolution as described in the House’s impeachment procedure policy.
In September 2018, Workman appealed the resolutions adopted by the House that formally impeached the justices the month prior.
The House impeached Workman, Robin Davis, Allen Loughry and current Justice Beth Walker for excessive spending on office renovations, misusing state property and, in the case of Loughry, lying about it.
Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, recalled it being “an excruciating experience.”
“It’s not something I take very, very lightly to impeach anybody and particularly the Supreme Court,” Zatezalo said during the committee meeting Friday. “I think this is a good resolution. I think it’s something that’s ended because if you’re going to go through all of that excruciating pain, we should be the voice. We should be the body that rules as far as this type of thing goes. To have it struck down after all that work was really painful.”
Walker was the only justice to stand trial in the Senate, which voted to admonish her but keep her on the bench.
In effect, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Workman case prevented the impeachment trials of Workman and former justices Davis and Loughry from happening.
Nearly three years later, members of the House who were part of the impeachment haven’t forgotten that ruling.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he didn’t expect to have to relieve “such a painful chapter in all of our lives” on the third day of the session. Pushkin voted against the measure, saying the court in the Workman case kept the Legislature in check for failing to follow its own rules and that the new precedent could be wielded as a political weapon.
“Taking federal relief money and putting it in a bucket or entering our state into a frivolous lawsuit to disqualify voters in four other states, many things could be considered maladministration,” Pushkin said. “I would definitely think about this when you’re voting on this. It’s a political process and sometimes the shoe can be on the other foot. The fact that there’s no remedy to keep us in check. That could be used like a weapon.”
Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, also voted against the resolution and urged lawmakers to be careful in potentially eroding the checks and balances among the state’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
“I’m particularly concerned that we be careful when we remove due process to the person being impeached,” Lovejoy said. “They’re not always guilty ... To allow a process where they have no due process protections, I think that’s a dangerous thing.”