CHARLESTON, W.Va. —West Virginia must hold a special election for governor by Nov. 15, or within one year of when state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin began acting as chief executive, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a unanimous decision.
The justices rejected Tomblin's stance that the West Virginia Constitution and state law did not set the next vote for the governor's office until 2012. They instead sided with West Virginia Citizen Action Group and lawyer Thornton Cooper, who challenged Tomblin's conclusion.
"This election should truly be a people's election," he said.
In ordering Tomblin to proclaim an election and fix its date, the opinion cites a timetable proposed in the case by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. West Virginia's chief elections officer, Tennant advised setting the vote 195 days after a proclamation.
"The setting of the date of such new election must ensure that the vacancy in the office of governor be properly filled within one year of the date when the vacancy occurred," the ruling written by Justice Brent Benjamin said.
That finding reflects language in the constitution upon which Tuesday's ruling relies: "whenever a vacancy shall occur in the office of governor before the first three years of the term shall have expired, a new election for governor shall take place to fill the vacancy.
Then-Gov. Joe Manchin had more than two years left in his term when he joined the U.S. Senate in November. Manchin had won a special election prompted by the death last year of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
The constitution also calls on the Senate president — in this case, Tomblin — to act as governor upon such a vacancy. But state law on the subject led Tomblin to contend that a "new" election meant the next general election, which isn't until next year. The office is already on the ballot then, for a full four-year term.
The Supreme Court instead ruled that a new statewide election "shall be held as soon as practicable."
"We believe that the framers of the Constitution, by specifically requiring an election when a vacancy occurs in the first three years of a gubernatorial term but not requiring an election if the vacancy occurs in the final year of the term, clearly intended that a person not elected to the post may act as governor for a period of no more than one year," Benjamin wrote.
"I'm very happy with the decision by the court," Cooper said Tuesday. "The constitution of West Virginia has been vindicated."
WV-CAG Executive Director Gary Zuckett agreed. "The citizens of the state deserve the right to vote for their governor sooner rather than later," he said in a statement.
Citizen Action and Cooper filed separate petitions, which the court combined. During arguments in the case last week, the justices noted the amount of time left in Manchin's term. But they also questioned how they could rule without violating the constitutional provision meant to keep the branches of government independent and equal.
While citing the state law setting a convention, instead of a primary, for special election candidates, the decision suggests the Legislature could amend that provision. The 60-day regular session began last week.
"Having found the procedure constitutional, it would be improper of this Court to second-guess the wisdom of this procedure, or to otherwise 'legislate' a procedure more to our liking," the ruling said.
But the justices also warned that any legislation must adhere to the ruling's central finding.
"Any new procedure may not conflict with the Constitution which requires that all acts necessary to elect a governor shall be completed within one year of the vacancy in the office," the decision said.
Tennant on Tuesday estimated that special primary and special elections would each cost between $3 million and $4 million. If the state sticks with nominating conventions, the parties with ballot access would bear their respective costs.