WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t decided if it will hear the state Legislature’s appeal regarding the impeachment of state Supreme Court justices, but it has asked Justice Margaret Workman to file a brief in the matter.
Last month, the court asked Marc Williams, who is representing Workman, to file a response to the petitions filed by the House of Delegates and state Senate. Workman originally had waived the right to respond to the petitions.
Williams, the managing partner of Nelson Mullins’ Huntington office, said he thinks the request signifies the importance of the issue.
“It does not mean they’re going to take the case,” Williams told The West Virginia Record. “But, I think the issues they have raised are pretty unique. They seem to think this is an important issue. For one, the issues were not raised in the Supreme Court of Appeals, which creates some issues about waiver.
“But, they are arguing to make a federal Constitution question applicable, and it probably is the least litigated section of the document – the guarantee clause. It’s such a unique argument, I think they wanted to see our perspective on it.”
The House of Delegates asked the Supreme Court to hear its challenge about whether the state Supreme Court, which was made up of circuit court judges temporarily hearing the matter, overstepped its bounds regarding separation of powers. The state Senate filed a similar challenge in March.
The House contends it has sole authority to impeach officials, and the Senate says it has the authority to conduct the ensuing impeachment trials. Neither legislative body questioned whether Workman was guilty of the offenses for which she was impeached.
The U.S. Supreme Court was going to consider those appeals during a conference earlier this month. But it has delayed that to give Workman time to respond.
Both the House and Senate petitions to the Supreme Court question the process by which five state court judges acting as the state Supreme Court stopped the impeachment of the then-current state Supreme Court justices. They say the decision goes against the separation of powers doctrine provided by the U.S. Constitution. The Senate petition doesn’t address the actual impeachment of any of the justices, rather it focuses on how the state Supreme Court violated the Legislature’s impeachment powers.
“Far from merely policing the boundaries of the impeachment process, the court below decided for itself the merits of some of the Articles of Impeachment, then declared that the Legislature can never use conduct regulated by West Virginia’s Code of Judicial Conduct as grounds for impeachment,” the Senate petition states. “This decision renders impeachment’s promise of accountability hollow by setting the judiciary up as its own judge, and impermissibly upsets the balance of powers between what should and must be co-equal branches.”
The legislative bodies want the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the Legislature’s role of impeachment by tossing out the state Supreme Court’s October ruling.
“(The U.S. Supreme Court) should intervene to resolve the narrow, but critically important, question whether the acting justices’ decision undermines the republican form of government that the federal Constitution guarantees to every State,” the Senate petition states.
The House believes this decision denies the state a republican form of government as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
"The decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia violates the Guarantee Clause of the United States Constitution as it elevates itself to a supreme branch of government with authority to review the impeachment proceedings of the State Senate and House of Delegates and restrict the rights of both chambers thereby eviscerating the checks and balances of state government and the separation of powers doctrine," the House petition states.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay) said the purpose of the filing is not to seek permission to restart impeachment proceedings, but instead to correct what House leaders believe are serious legal errors contained in the decision handed down by the temporary judges assigned to the state Supreme Court.
“We have said since October that a strict reading of that opinion removes virtually all of the Constitutional checks and balances we have on the judicial branch of government,” Hanshaw said in a statement. "Our action today is not an effort to resume the impeachment proceedings against any individual, but rather an effort to restore the proper legal and Constitutional authority granted to the Legislature with regard to impeachment proceedings."
Hanshaw said should a future Legislature need to begin impeachment proceedings against an elected official who has betrayed the public trust, they need to make sure it is able to act and not have its hands tied by this defective decision.
The House impeached the entire state Supreme Court last summer for various issues such as excessive spending on office renovations, personal use of state vehicles and pay issues for some senior status judges.
During the impeachment trial process before the state Senate, the acting state Supreme Court issued a ruling on a petition filed by then-Chief Justice Margaret Workman that ended the impeachment trials after the one for current Chief Justice Beth Walker.
The acting state Supreme Court ruling said lawmakers had overstepped their authority, saying the impeachment was based on parts of the state Constitution that only the judicial branch can handle.
“To get the attention of the Supreme Court, you have to identify how lower courts have come to a decision,” Williams said. “And sometimes it’s what they call a circuit split, meaning one lower court says A, and another lower court says B. And someone asks the Supreme Court ro resolve that.
“They (the House and Senate) are arguing that a circuit split exists, but the cases don’t support that.”
Williams will file a brief on behalf of Workman by May 24, which is the deadline given by the Supreme Court. Still, he thinks it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will take the case.
“If you’re an objective observer, this would not be a case as one likely to be taken,” Williams said, adding that the Supreme Court only reviews about 3 percent of the petitions filed. “That’s not to say this case isn’t important. Every case that goes up there has importance. It’s important to Justice Workman and to the Legislature. But the Court takes very few cases, and they take very few for a reason.”
State Senate President Mitch Carmichael issued a statement about the case.
“We are very encouraged that there appears to be some interest by the (U.S.) Supreme Court in this case,” he said.