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April 30, 2013 7:54 am

The Constitution says...

Written by Don Amend

Wyoming residents, by and large, have some misconceptions about the state’s government.

A few years ago, I heard Paul Hickey, then a Democratic candidate for governor, recall a conversation he had with a gentleman concerning the Wyoming Supreme Court’s controversial ruling on the state’s system of financing public schools. The gentleman asked Hickey if he would impeach the Supreme Court if he were elected governor. Hickey responded that he wouldn’t, because the governor doesn’t have the power to impeach judges. The gentleman then declared that he couldn’t vote for Mr. Hickey.

Well, Hickey was correct. In fact, while there is a mechanism for removing justices for misconduct, nobody has the power to impeach Wyoming judges, and in any case, handing down a decision people object to isn’t grounds for impeachment. So, if the gentleman voted for a candidate who promised to impeach the Supreme Court, he voted for a lie.

During that same time period, at a meeting of state legislators with the patrons of a school district, I heard a speaker demand that the Legislature find “a fresh set of judges” who would overturn the school decision. Well, needless to say, the Legislature isn’t empowered to simply replace judges any more than the governor is to impeach them, and the question was particularly troubling because the speaker was a former state legislator, who, one would assume, was familiar with the Wyoming Constitution.

The court’s decision stood, and it transformed school financing in the state. But schools are always a bone of contention among voters, which brings us to today’s controversy between the Wyoming Legislature and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. The Legislature, having become frustrated with Hill’s actions — or inactions, in some cases — passed a bill during its recent session redefining her duties and transferred some of those duties to a newly created position of director of education. Hill has filed suit, claiming the Legislature’s action is unconstitutional.

Now I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I have read the Wyoming Constitution. In fact, I have an electronic copy on my computer, left over from my teaching days, so it was pretty easy to look up what it says about the state superintendent’s duties. The duties of the office are clearly stated in one sentence: “The general supervision of the public schools shall be entrusted to the state superintendent of public instruction, whose powers and duties shall be prescribed by law.”

In other words, Hill’s duties are defined by the Legislature, the only body designated to pass laws. It’s hard to see how the court could do anything other than rule against Hill.

It appears that the legislators have a better understanding of the state’s Constitution than Hill or her attorney have.

Consequently, some groups plan to pursue putting a referendum on the ballot, hoping the voters will overrule the state Legislature. The Republican State Committee favors that action, putting them at odds with the Republicans in the Legislature who passed the bill.

Further, the Republican committee, which appears to have been taken over by the Stalinist wing of the party that wants to purge the GOP of all who vary from their definition of conservative, has contemplated asking three legislators, including Sen. Hank Coe, to resign from the party because of their role in passing the so-called “Hill Bill.” Their complaint is that the three have overturned the “vote of the people.”

Well, call me cynical, but I’m not sure “the people,” by and large, actually knew what they voted for in 2010. As a politically active teacher, I paid close attention to the state superintendent’s race for many years and worked to influence it. That experience revealed to me that most voters pay little, if any, attention to the superintendent’s race. In the 2010 Republican primary, for example, more than 11,000 Republicans—more than 10 percent of the total Republican voters—skipped over the office when they cast their ballots. Hill did win that primary by a healthy margin, but did not receive a majority in the primary, especially when you figure in the non-voters.

She also won the general election, but I wonder how many of those votes were “knee-jerk” votes from voters who simply chose her because she had an R after her name.

I personally encountered many such voters when I ran for office, who admitted they weren’t happy with the incumbent and thought I had the right ideas, but they simply couldn’t vote for a Democrat. Had I run as an independent, one of them told me, she would vote for me in a minute.

Even assuming that all the votes for Hill were cast conscientiously, those who cast them may have had unrealistic expectations, thinking that she could, on her own, mold the state’s public schools to their liking. Just as a local superintendent must administer the schools according to the policies of his school board, she is bound by the laws defining her role. She may — in fact she should — work with the Legislature to make changes if she thinks they should be made, but she can’t simply ignore the Legislature’s mandates.

According to the Wyoming Constitution, that’s the way it is.

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