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Separation of powers resolution fails vote in West Virginia Senate

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump tries to convince Senate Democrats to support his resolution to restore the separation of powers between the Legislature and the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. (Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — Republicans in the West Virginia Senate tried Wednesday to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to set the record straight on what powers the judicial branch has over legislative actions, but the measure failed to get the two-thirds needed.

Senate Joint Resolution 7 — introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan — failed 13-20 with one absent. The bill needed 23 senators to pass the Senate before heading to the House of Delegates, where it also needed two-thirds majority to pass. It still would have needed approval from the state’s voters in a special election.

SJR 7 would amend the West Virginia Constitution to limit the state Supreme Court of Appeals and lower courts from interfering with internal actions of the Legislature. The language of the resolution states that “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.”

“It will restore the rule of law that the court may not interfere with either house of the Legislature as they are occurring,” Trump said. “To interject itself and interfere with the proceedings of the Legislature as they are occurring…the power to do that is a pathway to judicial tyranny.”

The resolution is a result of the impeachment of four state Supreme Court justices in 2018 and their scheduled trials in the state Senate later that fall. Only one justice, Beth Walker, faced an impeachment trial that year. She was acquitted by the Senate.

The remaining trials were halted by an appointed state Supreme Court in a case brought by Justice Margaret Workman that said the House overstepped its bounds by bringing articles of impeachment alleging the justices had violated the Code of Judicial Conduct. The acting justices, all circuit court judges, ruled in a 3-2 decision that the House also violated the rules that body adopted for their impeachment investigation.

Last year, the Senate and House appealed the state Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. After arguments by both Workman and the Legislature were submitted, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the state Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutional issues raised by their halting of the impeachment trials.

Trump said the joint resolution would have made clear that the state Supreme Court could not interfere with legislative rules and powers specifically granted to the Legislature, such as impeachment.

“It’s about the proper structure of government,” Trump said. “This is about protecting what the constitution provides will be the exclusive sphere of the Legislature, and keeping the judiciary where it belongs.”

Democratic senators all sided against the joint resolution in the party-line vote. State Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said the Legislature shouldn’t interfere with the powers of the judicial branch over one court case.

“There has always been tension between the branches of government. This wouldn’t be the first time that the Legislature thought the judicial branch overreached in one of its decisions either at the federal level or in West Virginia,” Romano said. “I believe the constitution is sacred. I believe the judiciary has to have a free hand to decide if there is a particular case it’s going to hear or not hear.”

Workman, Walker, and former justices Robin Davis and Allen Loughry were impeached Aug. 13, 2018, after the House of Delegates adopted 11 articles of impeachment culminating from alleged misspending, mismanagement of the court, use of state property for personal uses by one or all of the remaining justices on the court at that time. The articles also included charges of approving overpay for senior status judges in violation of state code.

Former justice Menis Ketchum, who resigned before the impeachment investigation, later agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge of wire fraud. Former Justice Robin Davis resigned Aug. 14, 2018, after she was impeached and later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice, which she later dropped.

Allen Loughry resigned from the court in November 2018 after being convicted of 11 federal crimes, including for wire fraud and lying to federal investigators. It was extravagant spending by Loughry on renovations to his office, his use of a court-owned vehicle for personal trips, and his taking of state computer equipment and office furnishings for his own home that prompted the impeachment investigation of the entire court.

“I hope that for all eternity ahead of us that no future legislature in West Virginia has to deal with the impeachment of any official with the state government,” Trump said. “Human beings being what they are though, it can happen again.”

Workman, who was elected in 1988 as the first woman state Supreme Court justice in West Virginia history, served until 2000. She won another 12-year term to the High Court in 2008. She is retiring from the court this year, with four candidates seeking her seat in May.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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