Court issues decision on special election
MARTINSBURG – State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, described the West Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in the gubernatorial succession question as very appropriate.
“It seems to be well-grounded in the (state) constitution,” Snyder said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It was the correct decision.”
The state’s Supreme Court justices ruled Tuesday that a special election must be held to fill the unexpired term of former Gov. Joe Manchin, who resigned after he won a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Byrd, a Democrat, died in June at age 92 after serving in the U.S. Congress longer than any other member. Manchin, also a Democrat, defeated Republican John Raese in a special election that was held in conjunction with the general election in November.
As president of the West Virginia Senate, Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, became acting governor per the state constitution.
The West Virginia Citizen Action Group and Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper filed suit calling for a special election to fill the unexpired governor’s term, which would run through 2012.
Tomblin argued that a special election was not necessary and that he could serve as governor through the next regular election.
On Tuesday, the state’s Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that a special election for governor must be held by Nov. 15, or within one year of when Tomblin began acting as chief executive.
“The one year is well-grounded in the constitution,” Snyder added. “One year will give us a nice, orderly process.”
The justices ordered Tomblin to proclaim an election and fix its date, citing a timetable proposed in the case by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the state’s chief elections officer. Tennant advised setting the vote 195 days after the proclamation.
“Personally, I’m glad we’re not compressing the election,” Snyder continued. “There’s no need to compress it. We’ll have an orderly election cycle.”
Once Tomblin issues the proclamation, Snyder said the Legislature will address the mechanics of holding the special election.
Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, agreed with the Supreme Court decision.
“I think it was certainly the proper ruling because the constitution is very clear,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Barnes represents the 15th Senate district, which includes the southwest quadrant of Berkeley County and all of Morgan County. He said he appreciates the justices’ ruling because it sets a deadline for calling a special election.
Barnes said the high court’s ruling points out that state code calls for a nominating convention to pick party candidates rather than picking nominees through a primary election.
“I believe a nominating convention disenfranchises the people,” he said. “It is very important for people to pick their leaders and not leave that up to party leaders.”
Lawmakers could pass legislation to change state code and hold primaries, Barnes said.
“I believe many in the majority party (meaning Democrats) would agree,” he said. “There are several people who would want a primary and not a convention.”
Barnes has announced his intention to run for governor, and he said Tuesday that he would run in a special election.
Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, agreed there is a lot of support for a primary rather than a convention, but he was delighted with the court’s ruling regardless.
“I’m happy the people get to elect their leader,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s always a good day for the people when they are part of the process.”
He called the ruling a “good and fair decision. We’ll have a fair election.”
Meanwhile, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, conceded that the Supreme Court decision must be followed, but he said the ramifications are “not practical.”
“The next two years will be unstable,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “In the next two years, we could see three different governors. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s not practical.”
Unger firmly supports a primary election to pick nominees for the general election, rather than a convention.
“A primary is essential,” he stated. “We need to do an election and not let a group of elites, political bosses select candidates. … We need to hold a true election so that everybody has an opportunity to vote for governor.”
For Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, this decision was the right one because it’s all about following the state constitution.
“Even though an election is costly or perhaps not convenient, we must follow the constitution. We simply don’t want to go down that slippery slope of second guessing it,” Overington said.
The decision’s timing was good, according to Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, who agreed it was a necessary one and needed to be handled in a timely manner.
“It’s really a win for the citizens of West Virginia because it gives them a chance to pick their governor,” he said.
Now that the court has spoken it’s time to move forward, said Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson.
“Once the court hands down its opinion, all other opinions are irrelevant. … But I do believe the smartest thing for the Legislature to do now is to schedule a general election,” Doyle said.
He said the election should be set on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is when general election are normally held. Doyle added that the primary election should be held on its normal date in May as well, to encourage good voter turnout.
Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, said she was pleased with the decision.
“The people should ultimately decide who represents them, but we do need to be consistent with setting up the elections schedule,” Lawrence said.
Although elections and campaigns often can turn ugly, Lawrence hopes that won’t be the case this time.
“I hope this will be a positive experience for the public,” she said.
Pleased that the court issued a decision quickly, Delegate Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley, said he also agreed with the action.
“This is good because it gives us direction,” Miller said, adding that he also believes the constitution calls for a special election.
However, House Republicans wanted to address this problematic situation in July, he said.
“At that time, we recognized the problem of not fixing the succession issue, how the conflict between the state code and the constitution could create problems. The code needed to be changed to conform with the constitution,” Miller said.
“And if we had done it in July, I don’t believe we would have run into this situation,” he said. “I’m just glad the Supreme Court has begun to right the ship somewhat now. It is good they are moving us back in the right direction.”