West Virginia House committee approves separation of powers amendment
CHARLESTON — A constitutional amendment prohibiting the courts from interfering with future impeachment efforts by lawmakers made it through the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
House Joint Resolution 2 introduced by Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, would amend the West Virginia Constitution to limit the Supreme Court and lower courts from interfering with internal actions of the Legislature.
The language of the resolution states “No court of this state has any authority or jurisdiction … to intercede or intervene in, or interfere with, any impeachment proceedings of the House of Delegates or the Senate … nor is any judgment rendered by the Senate following a trial of impeachment reviewable by any court of this state.”
The resolution is a result of the impeachment of four 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 and was acquitted by the Senate.
The remaining trials were halted by an appointed state Supreme Court in a case brought by now-retired justice Margaret Workman that said the House overstepped its bounds by bringing articles of impeachment alleging the justices 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 its impeachment investigation.
The Senate and House appealed the Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. 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.
Both Republican members of House District 1 representing Hancock and Brooke counties, Pat McGeehan and Mark Zatezalo, supported the resolution. Zatezalo, who was part of 2018’s House Judiciary Committee impeachment investigation of the state Supreme Court, said sole impeachment authority lies with the legislative branch.
“This is not something that I take very lightly to impeach anybody and particularly the Supreme Court,” Zatezalo said. “I think this is a good resolution, and I think it’s something that’s needed because if you’re going to go through all that excruciating pain, we should be the voice. We should be the body that rules as far as this type of thing goes.”
Without this resolution, other state officials impeached and tried by the Legislature can use the loophole in the Workman decision, McGeehan said.
“The resolution has nothing to do with violating the separation of powers. It has everything to do with restoring the separation of powers,” McGeehan said. “We need to restore our own rightful powers as a legislative branch, because since then … the legislative branch has essentially been reduced to a social club. The impeachment powers are the last line of defense that we have in the state constitution. We have to pass this and ensure that we take our place again, to be able to enforce this kind of power and the threat of it.”
HJR 2 is a constitutional amendment requiring a vote by the public in a special election. Before that happens, the resolution must pass the House and Senate with a two-thirds vote majority in both bodies.
A similar resolution last year, Senate Joint Resolution 7, failed 13-20 along party lines, needing 23 members to pass.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.