Rationale behind decision to halt impeachment trials

January 21, 2019

The West Virginia House of Delegates recently petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to review a decision that halted the impeachment trials of several members of the state’s Supreme Court (WVSCA).

Much has been written questioning the merits of the WVSCA’s decision, but little has been written about the rationale behind the decision.

The matter came before the WVSCA upon the petition of Justice Margaret Workman, who requested that the WVSCA issue a writ ordering the Senate to stop the impeachment proceedings against her, arguing that the Legislature’s actions were constitutionally and procedurally flawed.

Not every justice faced the same number or nature of impeachment charges. The charges against Justice Margaret Workman included two charges stemming from the overpayment of senior status judges in violation of a state statute, and one with regard to the failure of Justice Workman (and her colleagues) to enact adequate policies for oversight of the WVSCA’s spending in violation of the provisions of Canon I and Canon II of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct. However, the WVSCA’s decision had implications for all of the impeachment trials.

A specially composed panel of the WVSCA held in its decision that (1) a state statute limiting payment to senior-status judges was a violation of the separation of powers doctrine; (2) the violation of an unconstitutional statute cannot be the basis for impeachment; and (3) the WVSCA has exclusive jurisdiction to determine conduct in violation of a Canon of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct, and therefore an alleged or established violation of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct cannot form a basis for impeachment.

The crux of the WVSCA’s ruling rests on the separation of powers doctrine between the legislative branch and the judicial branch and how the Judicial Reorganization Amendment to West Virginia’s Constitution in 1974 redefined the separation of power between those two branches.

The Supreme Court of the United States, for example, derives its authority to promulgate rules of procedure and administrative rules for the judiciary by statute, specifically, the Rules Enabling Act passed by Congress in 1934, which is a check that the U.S. Constitution has placed on the judiciary.

By contrast, the WVSCA derives its authority to promulgate rules of procedure and administrative rules for the judiciary from the West Virginia Constitution.

Article VIII, Section 3 of the state’s Constitution provides that, “The court shall have the power to promulgate rules for all cases and proceedings, civil and criminal, for all of the courts of the state relating to writs, warrants, process, practice and procedure, which shall have the force and effect of law.” Further, the judiciary has the sole authority to determine whether a judicial officer’s conduct violates a Canon of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct. This language does not exist in the U.S. Constitution.

The grant of authority given to the judicial branch with the ratification of the Judicial Reorganization Amendment was broad. The Judicial Reorganization Amendment empowered the WVSCA to establish procedural rules, determine policies for fiscal and staff management, supervise the caseload of the courts, and oversee the ethics for the bench and bar.

The Judicial Reorganization Amendment is also important for what it was lacking — a legislative check on the newly granted rule-making and administrative authority of the unified court. This lack of a legislative check on judicial rule-making authority places West Virginia with a minority of states.

The WVSCA’s decision was based upon and highlighted the extraordinary power that voters gave to the judiciary 44 years ago.

In response to the scandals of overspending, the voters took to the polls this past general election and voted for the Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment in an attempt to rein in the WVSCA. That amendment made changes to the Modern Budget Amendment of 1968 but not the Judicial Reorganization Amendment of 1974. This means that the basis for the WVSCA’s ruling is still intact and could lead to further conflict between the judicial and legislative branches.

A majority of states have checks built into their constitutions that either limit the power of the judiciary as it relates to administrative or supervisory rules, or permits the Legislature to amend, modify or disapprove of rules promulgated by the judicial branch in the same manner as an executive agency. West Virginia’s Constitution lacks such language.

The Legislature should consider a constitutional amendment that would give greater input to the Legislature on the judicial rule-making process. A constitutional amendment subjecting judicial rulemaking to legislative scrutiny would be consistent with the practices of a majority of states and would create a check against the judiciary that the voters thought they voted for with Amendment 2.

Nigel E. Jeffries is an attorney in Charleston and a former Huntington resident.

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