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House Judiciary OKs resolution to block court interference in impeachment

MORGANTOWN – The House Judiciary Committee okayed a resolution on Friday aimed at stopping state courts from interfering with impeachment proceedings.

It also approved a bill to require unions and employers to get express permission from employees to deduct money for political activities from paychecks.

The committee handled both measures during its morning meeting.

HJR 2 proposes a Constitutional amendment to clarify that courts have no authority or jurisdiction to intercede or intervene in or interfere with impeachment proceedings of the House of Delegates or the Senate and that a judgment rendered by the Senate following an impeachment trial is not reviewable by any state court.

If it passes both houses, the amendment would be put before the voters for their approval.

HJR 2 stems from summer 2018 when the Legislature impeached all five sitting state Supreme Court Justices. Then-Chief Justice Margaret Workman petitioned to have the proceedings against her stopped.

A substitute court sitting in for the impeached justices agreed with Workman in October 2018 and stopped the process. The court said in a 64-page ruling the Legislature violated her due process rights, violated separation of powers, and that the House violated its own impeachment rules by failing to set out findings of fact and failing to pass a resolution adopting the articles of impeachment.

The state Constitution says: “The House of Delegates shall have the sole power of impeachment. The Senate shall have the sole power to try impeachments. … Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust or profit, under the state.”

The Legislature felt at the time, committee counsel said Friday, the court’s action was an unwarranted intrusion into the legislative process and essentially enabled the court to override impeachment of its own justices.

The resolution reflects the belief, counsel said, that impeachment functions as the only check on the judicial branch by the Legislature and final reviewing authority should not be in hands of the body subject to impeachment. If the process was sloppy, as some have maintained, it’s not the judiciary’s role to overrule that.

But some worried that this Constitutional amendment could leave legislative power unchecked.

Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, said participating in the impeachment “was an excruciating experience.”

The impeachment was largely over court misspending and the court’s lack of spending policy, he said. Now there are policies in place and the court is doing a good job with the money.

Nonetheless, he said, “We should be the voice. We should be the body that rules.”

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, opposes the amendment. Impeaching over spending is kind of a low bar considering all the excessive spending across government, he said.

And the amendment upsets the separation of powers. “There’s no remedy to keep us in check on that,” he said. “It could be used as a weapon.”

On the other side, Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, said the amendment restores the separation of powers disrupted by the court’s ruling. “The impeachment powers are the last line of defense” in the state Constitution.

HJR 2 was approved in a divided voice vote along party lines. It goes next to the full House for adoption.

Union bill

HB 2009 deals with withholding wages for political causes.

It says an employer may not withhold or divert any portions of an employee’s wages or salary to contribute to a candidate, committee or political activity – unless the employee gives written permission on a form to be prescribed by the secretary of state. The employee may subsequently modify or withdraw that permission at any time.

It also says it is an unfair labor practice for any union to use shop fees paid by a non-member to contribute to influencing an election or operating a political committee “unless affirmatively authorized.” That authorization may be withdrawn at any time in writing. This section doesn’t mention the secretary of state form.

Committee counsel said a similar bill passed both houses in 2017 but was vetoed, in large part because the permission had to be renewed annually and the governor stated that was an excessive burden on the employer.

This bill was written without that annual renewal, counsel said, in order to overcome the governor’s objections.

However, the members – in a divided vote – approved an amendment offered by Delegate Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis and a bill co-sponsor – to put the annual renewal back in, in a slightly different form: The permission will expire annually. It would be up to the employee to renew it.

Many opponents viewed this bill and the 2017 version as blatantly anti-union. Pushkin said Friday, “This is a political bill.”

Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, also argued that the bill will place an undue burden on employers based out of state employers that employ West Virginians.

Some opponents objected to the criminal aspect of the bill: Failure to comply is a misdemeanor carrying a potential $1,000 fine and jail time.

McGeehan sided with the Democrat opponents, saying it uses the law to go after political opponents and reflects an uneven application of the law.

It passed in a roll call vote, 18-7, and goes to the full House.

TWEET David Beard@dbeardtdp