Lawmakers are considering a resolution that would specify that courts have no authority to intervene in impeachment proceedings.
The legislation is a response to the court system’s 2018 ruling to halt the impeachment of West Virginia’s entire Supreme Court.
Lawmakers who favor clarification to the state Constitution emphasize that impeachment is a power specific to the Legislature. But some lawmakers asked what recourse there would be if majorities in the Legislature were to run amuck with that power.
Because the matter could change the state Constitution, two thirds majorities in each house of the Legislature would be required for its passage. Because Republicans have supermajorities in both the House and Senate, they have the numbers for passage as long as they’re united on the issue.
From there, the constitutional change would be on ballots for West Virginia voters to decide.
Delegates in committee debated House Joint Resolution 2 for about an hour on Friday morning. The change amounts to one line:
No court of this state has any authority or jurisdiction, by writ or otherwise, to intercede or intervene in, or interfere with, any impeachment proceedings of the House of Delegates or the Senate conducted hereunder; nor is any judgment rendered by the Senate following a trial of impeachment reviewable by any court of this state.
Some delegates, mostly Democrats, spoke against the change.
“We have to be careful when we erode checks between the three branches,” said Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell.
In 2018, West Virginia justices were impeached on a range of charges, including lavish spending on office renovations, the use of state vehicles for private travel, approving pay for some senior status judges above the legal limit and failure to hold each other accountable.
A lawsuit by Justice Margaret Workman contended the grounds for impeachment crossed over into the judiciary system’s own constitutional authority. She also contended the Legislature hadn’t precisely followed its own procedures.
Her case went to the state Supreme Court, where a panel of temporary justices decided the matter because the usual state Supreme Court had recused. The substitute Supreme Court ruled to block the impeachment trials of most of the justices.
“To have it struck down after all that work was really painful to tell you the truth,” said Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock.
Zatezalo expressed support for steps to assure it’s not repeated.
“It is not something I take very lightly to impeach anybody, particularly the Supreme Court,” he said. “I think this is a good piece of legislation and I think it’s something that’s needed.
“We should be the voice. We should be the body that rules.”
Another delegate who participated in the impeachment process, Democrat Mike Pushkin of Kanawha County, also described those events as very difficult but drew different conclusions.
“I did not know on Day 3 of the session I was going to have to live through such a painful experience in all our lives,” Pushkin said.
Pushkin asked about the breadth of ways a maladministration charge could be used. As possibilities, he cited the governor’s slow spending of federal emergency dollars or the Attorney General’s participation in a lawsuit challenging the voting process in another state — examples drawn from actual events.
“It could be used like a weapon. I’d hate to see that. So I’m going to vote against it,” Pushkin said.
Lovejoy imagined a scenario that he described as absurd, asking his fellow lawmakers to consider a situation where impeachment could be rammed through without regard to scale, evidence or process.
“What if we’d impeach the governor – because she is a Republican. Get enough votes and impeach – there is absolutely no review by any court of law that this process was valid?” asked Lovejoy, the lead Democrat on the committee.
He concluded, “This amendment would say there is no redress for that accused person.”
Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, said checks are already built into the process. The House impeaches and the Senate holds a trial.
“Do we not have a bicameral legislature? So the Legislature is split into two for one chamber to check the other, correct?” McGeehan said.
Later, McGeehan concluded the resolution is necessary to clarify the Legislature’s constitutional power.
“This has everything to do with restoring the separation of powers,” he said. “We need to restore our own rightful powers in the legislative branch. The impeachment powers are the last line of defense we have in the state constitution.”