In House Joint Resolution 2, West Virginia lawmakers are opening a serious can of worms. This amendment is as unnecessary as it is dangerous.
It 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 unconstitutional the process.
The disaster scenarios write themselves. A governor vetoes a wasteful spending bill passed by lawmakers? Impeachment. A judge issues a decision the Legislature doesn’t like? Impeachment. Under HJR 2, legislators would have so much power that they also could remove any state official on entirely discriminatory grounds, such as for being gay or for being of a certain race.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Legislature also could disregard the constitutionally specified impeachment process. What if the House of Delegates voted to impeach, but the Senate refused to hold a trial? What if the Senate convicted a public official without a trial?
Supporters of the resolution have responded to these very real concerns with little more than hand waving. Yes, they admit, all those things could happen under HJR 2, but the Legislature would never actually abuse its power in such a way.
But why even take that risk in the first place?
The drafters of our great state’s constitution realized the importance of separation of powers. When one branch of government has too much power, the entire system can be undermined. Lawmakers blocking out courts completely from the impeachment process is akin to football players throwing referees out of a game — the results aren’t going to be pretty.
That image does well to illustrate the risks of this resolution, but it doesn’t get to just how unnecessary HJR 2 really is. Supporters claim it is needed to clarify that the Legislature has the sole authority in impeachment. That isn’t in question — our state constitution makes clear that power resides solely with the Legislature — nor has it ever been questioned.
In the much-cited 2018 decision involving former state Supreme Court justice Margaret Workman, the Supreme Court made clear that its opinion 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 it “must be done correctly and constitutionally, with due process.” In other words, the Legislature already has the power that backers of the resolution claim to want to restore with HJR 2. The acting court intervened back in 2018 only because the House of Delegates failed to follow its own rules regarding impeachment.
With HJR2, I fear that lawmakers are ushering in an era of hyper-partisan battles over impeachment while cutting themselves loose of all constitutional restraint during the impeachment process.
It’s not enough that lawmakers promise not to abuse their power. West Virginians are honorable, but they deserve better than a government-by-honor system. We need real, clear separation of powers. HJR 2 threatens to tear that separation away.