Two Constitutional Amendments Headed for the Ballot in November

Other Measures on the Judiciary, Women’s Health Stall

During the 2018 legislative session, legislators approved resolutions putting two proposed constitutional amendments on the November 6 general election ballot.

On the final night of the session, the House and Senate agreed to a compromise version of SJR 3, the Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment, which would amend the state constitution to give the Legislature oversight of the judiciary’s budget. The amendment was proposed in response to a recent spending scandal involving extravagant renovations to the private chambers of the State Supreme Court justices.

After scrutinizing the language proposed by the Senate and coming to the conclusion that it did nothing to insulate the judiciary from politically motivated attacks, the House amended the resolution to include a procedural safeguard of requiring a super-majority (two-thirds) vote of the Legislature to reduce the judiciary’s budget by more than ten percent from the previous fiscal year.

The Senate refused to concur with the House changes to the proposed amendment, and the compromise language that will go before voters says, “the Legislature may not decrease the total general revenue appropriations to the judiciary … to an amount that is less than eighty-five percent of the amount of the total general revenue appropriations to the judiciary in the most recently enacted budget without a separate vote … approved by two-thirds of the members elected to each house.

While some level of oversight is warranted in light of the Supreme Court spending scandal, this restraint on the Legislature will help discourage retaliation and protect the balance of powers between the legislative and judicial branches should the proposed amendment be approved by the voters.

When all is said and done, it’s important to remember (as former Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely pointed out in an interview with Metro News last fall) that we aren’t talking just about the Supreme Court, but the budget of West Virginia’s entire judicial system, including the circuit, family, and magistrate courts, and that budgetary constraints imposed by the Legislature could affect their ability to effectively serve the people.

While the Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment will be decided by voters in November, another measure that would dramatically reshape our judicial system failed to advance in the House of Delegates. The State Senate had passed SB 341, which would establish an intermediate court of appeals between the level of circuit court and the State Supreme Court to hear civil appeals, appeals of workers’ compensation claims, abuse and neglect cases and some other administrative appeals.

Fortunately, this costly proposal designed to drag out appeals to the advantage of parties with greater financial resources — delaying justice for West Virginia small businesses, consumers and workers — stalled in the House Judiciary Committee during the final week of the session.

In addition to SJR 3, the Legislature also approved another proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 12) that is being deceptively explained as an effort to take away Medicaid funding for abortion, but which aims to take away reproductive rights for women more broadly.

SJR 12, the No Constitutional Right to Abortion Amendment, would give the Legislature sole authority over abortion. Although the amendment targets Medicaid coverage for abortions for low-income women, it also opens the door for further attacks on the reproductive rights of all West Virginia women.

Here is an excerpt from the resolution: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

The motivation for putting this issue on the ballot is to score points with religious conservatives in West Virginia. It is wrong and unconscionable to use women as political pawns! Our friends in the reproductive justice community are gearing up to defeat this extreme measure this fall, and you can sign up here to be involved in this fight for women’s lives.

Although this atrocious ballot measure is moving forward, a bill (HB 4623) that would have punished and/or made criminals out of pregnant women struggling with addiction if/when they seek prenatal health care was defeated in the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee after passing the House of Delegates a week earlier.

Prioritizing punishment of a substance abuse disorder over the safety of our women and their families, and discouraging them from getting the care they need was a misguided attempt to solve a very complex, serious epidemic in West Virginia, and we were glad to see this proposal stopped in its tracks.

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