Appeal: Separation of powers question must be resolved

Most West Virginians who were upset and outraged about last year’s impeachment summer, involving state Supreme Court members, probably would prefer to forget about it. It is over and done with — except for one critical detail.

Three of the high court’s five members were replaced as a result of the scandal. One was convicted of multiple crimes of corruption. Another pleaded guilty. The third resigned rather than face the wrath of state legislators.

But an important issue involving separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government remains unresolved.

Of the two justices from the old court, one, Elizabeth Walker, was impeached by the House of Delegates and tried by the state Senate. Senators acquitted her but agreed to a vote of censure. Walker, now chief justice, seems committed to important reforms on the court.

So does the other carryover justice, Margaret Workman. But a House impeachment vote still hangs over her head. It involves the court’s past spending, not criminal accusations.

Workman was to have been tried by the Senate last year, but that plan was halted by a panel of five circuit judges who were sitting as the state Supreme Court. They ruled the trial could not proceed. They based their contention on the doctrines of separation of powers and right to due process.

Legislators have appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As matters involving the courts often do, those regarding the Workman case have moved slowly but steadily. It is unlikely the Supreme Court will act before this fall.

Lawmakers themselves seem to have little or no appetite for another impeachment trial. So why pursue the U.S. Supreme Court appeal regarding Workman?

For the future. Thoughtful West Virginians hope and pray there never again comes a time when legislators feel it necessary to impeach state high court justices. But what if it does?

As matters stand, the ruling last year by the temporary state Supreme Court seems to imply that separation of powers prohibits lawmakers from attempting to remove, or even discipline, justices. That would leave the judicial branch with sole power over its members — and that may be too much separation of powers.

Continuing to pursue the U.S. Supreme Court appeal has a cost to taxpayers. It may seem needless because there is little or no immediate need to resolve the issue.

But, two years ago, who could have foreseen the state high court scandal that erupted? It could happen again. Settling the separation of powers issue is important, then, for the future.

COMMENTS