We’re less than two weeks into the 2021 session and the WV Legislature is moving quickly to undermine the ability of West Virginia courts to defend our democracy and guard against abuses of power. And after three consecutive years of not gettting their way, some legislative leaders still want to waste millions of dollars on an unnecessary intermediate court of appeals because big-money, out-of-state, powerful special interests are demanding it.
Dangerous Solutions Looking for a Problem
A proposed constitutional amendment put forth by the House of Delegates (HJR 2) that would cut loose future impeachment proceedings of the WV Legislature from all constitutional restraint. 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. In the hands of a partisan majority, this new power could be abused to oust political opponents without cause, thereby eroding existing checks and balances between the three branches of government and undercutting public trust in the political process. The House Judiciary Committee recommended the resolution be adopted and sent it to the full House for a vote, although as of this writing it remains parked on the House’s inactive calendar pending action by the House Rules Committee.
Not to be outdone, the Republican leadership in the Senate has reintroduced the proposed “Protecting the Separation of Powers Amendment” (SJR 8), which would strip state courts of their ability to interfere in any proceedings of the Legislature (not just impeachments), even if those proceedings aren’t constitutional, opening the door to blatant abuses of power by the legislative branch. During the 2020 legislative session, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the resolution, sending it to the full Senate for a vote. Democratic senators held the line, which kept the measure from getting the two-thirds vote needed for passage. However, the new Republican supermajorities in both the House and the Senate make it more challenging to stop these power grabs. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we fight them.
Both amendments are being proposed under the guise that an acting Supreme Court of Appeals overstepped its authority when it intervened to halt the impeachment of former justice Margaret Workman, and without regard for the facts in the case. The acting court only got involved because the House of Delegates failed to follow its own impeachment rules, and made clear that its decision was “not about whether or not a Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia can or should be impeached,” but rather about the fact that such proceedings “must be done correctly and constitutionally with due process.” The acting court’s decision also recognized that the state constitution “does not provide this Court with jurisdiction over an appeal of a final decision by the Court of Impeachment.”
To play their proper role in our democracy, courts must be able to rule against governors and legislatures when necessary. When the legislative branch tries to control the judicial branch, it weakens the stability of our democracy. We can’t let that happen.
Unnecessary Court Would Waste Limited Tax Dollars
The Senate is also moving quickly, to advance its proposal to create an unnecessary intermediate court of appeals (SB 275), which would provide opportunities to pack the courts with partisan allies and drag out appeals to the advantage of parties with greater financial resources. What’s more, it’s a complete waste of our limited tax dollars because we don’t even need it! Appeals have declined nearly 70 percent over the last 20 years. You don’t spend millions to make the courts bigger when appeals are in rapid decline.
This gift to special interests that want to deny everyday West Virginians their day in court has already cleared both the Senate Judiciary and Finance Committees and will be up for a vote by the full Senate on Wednesday.
Click here to tell your legislators to put the needs of West Virginians above the demands of special interests, invest more in vital public services, and say NO to an intermediate court we don’t need.
Defending and Strengthening Our Democracy
Despite these challenges to fair and impartial courts, we remain hopeful about the opportunities to strengthen our democracy and capitalize on the record turn out in November to make expanded voting options available during the pandemic, including no excuse absentee voting, permanent and to advance other reforms to further increase participation such as same day registration. Although Senate leaders announced that they plan to introduce nine election bills as part of their broader agenda, it remains to be seen whether they will embrace their own success in 2020 or instead use dangerous lies and misinformation around the election and baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud to restrict access to voting. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more about these election reform measures.
In the meantime, we encourage you to join the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education and the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County for two conversations on electoral systems and reform movements to make them more representative of our nation’s electorate starting this Thursday, February 25 at 7 PM.
Coming out of the historic 2020 election, many people are examining the United States’ electoral system more closely than ever, leading us to consider whether our present systems for voting and electing public servants are truly representative of the will of the people.
This two-part series will explore the history of our current national election framework, the Electoral College, and as well as reform efforts to make our voting procedures more representative, including ranked choice voting.