As a Democrat in 2017, Gov. Jim Justice vetoed Senate Bill 255.
He’s a Republican now, and an all-but-identical bill could answer the question of whether his party switch has changed his governance.
Following the 2016 resignation of state Sen. Daniel Hall, who won election as a Democrat in 2012 before switching to the Republican Party in 2014, the court interpreted state code to require Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to appoint a Republican to the seat, as Hall was when he left office.
The bill would embed that case law into state code, while adding another provision that states, if congressmen or constitutional officers — the attorney general, secretary of state, etc. — vacate office, the governor must appoint one of three names provided by the party executive committee of the resignee at the time he or she resigns.
Current law allows the governor to pick anyone from any party to fill such vacancies.
The Senate passed it on a 19-13 vote Friday evening. The House passed its version of the bill last month on a 62-34 vote, but it needs to agree to changes the Senate made or settle them in a conference committee before the bill goes to the governor.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is running for the GOP primary nomination for the U.S. Senate halfway into his four-year term. If he were to win the primary and the general election, current law says Justice could pick anyone to fill his seat, while the bill would require the state Republican Party to present three options from which Justice would pick one.
When Justice vetoed S.B. 255 last year, he said unforeseen situations under the bill could leave the state exposed to chicanery.
“It rewards political tomfoolery rather than the will of the voters in the previous election,” he said in a veto letter. “If applied to a situation where a Republican or Democrat switches his or her party designation to the Communist Party before vacating the office, Enrolled Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 255 would require the Governor to appoint a replacement from the Communist party. That unfathomable scenario is possible under this bill, and I cannot sign it into law.”
Several Democrats in the House and the Senate echoed similar concerns this year as the bill worked its way through the Legislature
During the second reading of the bill in the Senate, where members can offer amendments, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, offered a change that would require the governor to fill appointments with members of the resignee’s party at the time of election.
He said the bill as written would make West Virginia the only state in the nation to handle resignations in such fashion. The amendment failed.
Prior to the Senate’s passage vote, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said the bill as written would invite political corruption by giving legislators the opportunity to switch parties in return for favors, employment opportunities or otherwise.
However, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, disputed Romano’s take. He said people care about ideology and ideas, not partisanship.
“People vote for a person, not for a party,” Karnes said.
While the bill went through the House, Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, questioned whether the bill addresses politicians who switch from one party to independent status, as did Delegate Rupie Phillips.
Phillips was elected as a Democrat, left the party to legislate as an independent and then joined the Republican Party to run for Congress.