Legislature passes resolution clarifying court should stay out of impeachment cases

Senators approved a resolution that would specify that courts have no authority to intervene in impeachment proceedings.

The resolution was adopted 23-11. The House of Delegates already approved the measure. West Virginia voters would get the responsibility to decide for themselves whether to amend the state Constitution by casting ballots in an upcoming election.

The possible constitutional 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.

The Legislature needs to make that separation clear following the experience of impeaching West Virginia’s justices three years ago, said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan. And he said the decision ultimately should go to the voters of West Virginia through a constitutional amendment.

Charles Trump

“The point of this (resolution) that we’re considering is to restore to the houses of the Legislature what the Constitution clearly devolves upon the houses of the Legislature as the exclusive and authority and duty in this area,” Trump said.

Answering questions from other senators, Trump acknowledged that even in extreme impeachment cases — ones just based on personality, political party or small matters — the person being impeached would have no recourse outside the process. But he said he trusts the Senate to use good judgment.

“I trust the West Virginia Senate, this body, to administer that obligation fully, fairly, dispassionately,” he said.

William Ihlenfeld

Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, disagreed.

“I think we are going too far with this particular resolution. I think we are eliminating the ability of people who are wronged to have recourse,” Ihlenfeld said.

“It’s that I don’t trust politics in general. I know what that can do to people. It can cause strange things to happen.”

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 Workman impeachment trial, halting the trials of most of the justices.

“The court that had the authority to address it was this court, the Senate,” Senator Trump said today.

separate opinion by acting judges Duke Bloom and Jacob Reger concurred with some parts of the main opinion and dissented with others. They wrote that the majority correctly concluded the judiciary has a limited role in impeachment proceedings, extending to protection the constitutional rights of an impeached official.

But Bloom and Reger said the majority opinion went beyond that role. They said the Legislature should have had the ability to correct any procedural errors. And although they wrote that it was clear the Legislature could not impeach again on two of the allegations that veered into the justices’ constitutional authority, they said a maladministration count could have been heard again.

The two judges wrote that “we feel that it is imperative that we make clear that it is our belief that the Legislature has absolute authority to impeach a judicial officer or any State public officer for wrongful conduct.”

They added, “Even so, judicial intervention in an impeachment proceeding should be extremely rare, and only in the limited situation where an impeachment charge is prohibited by the Constitution.”

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