State Supreme Court affirms separation of powers

By The West Virginia Record | Jul 1, 2011

Anyone with a grasp of civics knows that our federal government is divided into three separate branches, each with distinct powers and prerogatives: the legislative, the executive and the judicial.

Congress passes our national laws, the president executes and administers those laws and our national courts apply those laws to particular cases and consider challenges to them.

Our state government is likewise divided into three separate branches. Theoretically, each branch is supposed to respect the rights and prerogatives of the other two and jealously guard against encroachments on its own authority.

Sadly, this is not always the case. At both the state and national level, members of each branch sometimes overstep themselves and try to usurp the powers of another branch or timidly refrain from asserting their own just powers, allowing them to be usurped.

In recent times, it most often has been the courts that have overreached, presuming to legislate from the bench and effectively enacting or nullifying laws by judicial fiat. How refreshing it is to hear a distinguished state jurist publicly reject such usurpation and reaffirm the separation of powers.

"It is not our prerogative to substitute our judgment for that of the Legislature," Chief Justice Margaret Workman wrote in a recent opinion upholding the constitutionality of state caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits.

Workman affirmed that "the judiciary may not sit as a super legislature to judge the wisdom or desirability of legislative policy determinations made in areas that neither affect fundamental rights nor proceed along suspect lines."

Plaintiffs and their attorneys did not let those caps go unchallenged, however. Just last month, Washington attorney Robert Peck and his clients, James and Debbie MacDonald, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the State Court of Appeals to overturn them.

Kudos to Workman and her colleagues, whose decision, as she herself noted, "places West Virginia squarely with the majority of jurisdictions in holding that caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases are constitutional."

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