The West Virginia Secretary of State has taken the position that the special election to replace Senator Byrd will not occur until November 2012. She relies on Robb v. Caperton, a 1994 West Virginia Supreme Court case which applied the same vacancy statute in the context of a judicial vacancy.
Robb does provide support for the Secretary’s statutory interpretation, but there are questions whether the court’s reasoning should be extended to the current situation. In Robb, a circuit judge resigned on April 20, 1994, leaving an unexpired term that would last until December 31, 2000. The question was whether the vacancy should be filled by election in November 1994 or in November 1996.
The court began its analysis with the West Virginia Constitution. It found the general vacancy provision of Section 7, Article IV, which was “keyed to ‘the next general election,’” inapplicable to judicial vacancies because the latter were governed by the more specific and detailed provision of Section 7, Article VIII. Under Article VIII, the Governor is directed to fill a judicial vacancy without any election if the unexpired term is less than two years or, if so provided by law, no more than three years. For vacancies of more than three years, the Governor is directed to issue a directive of election to fill the vacancy “in the manner prescribed by law,” and, in the meantime, to fill the vacancy by appointment.
The court found the phrase “in the manner prescribed by law” critical to the analysis of when an election to fill a judicial vacancy should take place. The court held that “[i]t is clear under W.Va. Code, 3-10-3, the governor has the ability to fill a vacancy in the office of a supreme court justice or a circuit judge until a successor has ‘timely filed a certificate of candidacy, [and] has been nominated at the primary next following such timely filing[.]’” Since the date for filing a certificate of candidacy had passed in early February, the court concluded that the election to fill the vacancy could not be held until November 1996.
The statutory language construed by the court is the same language that applies to filling vacancies for other offices, including that of U.S. Senator. Given that the court thought this language was “too plain” to be interpreted as requiring an election in November 1994, the Secretary would seem to be on solid ground in reaching a similar conclusion with regard to the Byrd vacancy. Nevertheless, the Robb court’s conclusion was fundamentally premised on the language of Section 7, Article VIII of the West Virginia Constitution, which applies only to judicial vacancies. Moreover, the court appeared to assume that vacancies in non-judicial offices were required to be filled, under the provisions of Section 7, Article IV, at the next general election, notwithstanding the fact that such offices were governed by the same statutory language. It is therefore uncertain whether the reasoning of the Robb case should apply here.
If the statutory language is construed as the Secretary of State suggests, the results are perplexing, if not absurd. It is hard to see why the legislature would have chosen a two year and six month cutoff for holding elections, if the intent had not been to have a special election to fill the last two years of the term in question. When asked about this at her press conference, the Secretary of State was unable to offer an explanation of a legislative policy that might be advanced by this result.
Finally, the Secretary of State’s interpretation of the statute is, at best, in considerable tension with the fundamental policy of the Seventeenth Amendment, namely that Senators be elected by the people. There would seem to be ample grounds for mounting a legal challenge.