Delegates passed a resolution that would specify that courts have no authority to intervene in impeachment proceedings.
If the full Legislature passes the measure, West Virginia voters could get the responsibility to decide for themselves whether to amend the state Constitution during the 2022 General Election.
“We’re going to send it back to the people who I think, unfortunately, will be less worked up about it than some of us are,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, arguing against passage.
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.
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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.
“We were essentially de-fanged from one of our constitutional responsibilities,” House Judiciary Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said today while speaking in favor of the resolution.
Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, said he served through that process and wouldn’t take it lightly.
“We need to take back our authority, and I hope it never, ever happens again,” Zatezalo said.
Democrats raised issues about checks and balances. They asked what would happen if a Legislature in the future failed to follow its own rules, impeached purely along party lines or made the broadest possible interpretation of concepts like maladministration.
There would be no possibility of judicial intervention, they said.
“Any hyperpartisan and frivolous impeachment would be A-OK,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.
Capito said impeachments already have high hurdles, with a majority required in the House to impeach and a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict.
If citizens conclude the process has run off the rails, he said, the recourse would lie with voters.
“If they don’t like the decision, they can send us home,” Capito said.
West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, a community organization focusing on electoral and judicial issues, has described the possible amendment as unnecessary. The organization says the legislative branch already has a power laid out clearly in Article 4 of the state constitution.
Instead, the organization says, this is a power grab.
“HJR 2 would cut loose future impeachment proceedings of the state legislature from all constitutional restraint,” the organization wrote.
“The amendment would make it so that no court in the state could intervene to protect the right to a fair hearing of a public official facing impeachment, no matter how frivolous the charge or constitutionally flawed the process.”