- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite acknowledged the concern and challenges presented by the court’s recent decision that a new law making sweeping changes to the superintendent of public instruction’s office is unconstitutional.

“Clearly there is nothing to be done but to embrace those challenges and to go back to work fulfilling our respective constitutional obligations to the people of this state,” Kite told a joint session of the Legislature on Monday.

Kite addressed the issue at the start of her State of Judiciary speech, noting the “elephant in the room.”

The speech is traditionally presented by the chief justice after the governor’s State of the State address on the first day of the legislative session. Lawmakers are meeting for 20 days to primarily hash out a new state budget.

In a 3-2 decision two weeks ago, the court ruled that the Legislature went too far in changing the superintendent’s duties last year. It said a new law that replaced the superintendent as head of the state Education Department with a director appointed by the governor was unconstitutional.

The law brought sweeping changes that now must be undone. But while the court’s majority opinion said the Legislature went too far in exceeding its authority, it also acknowledged that lawmakers have the power to alter the superintendent’s duties.

Kite was one of two justices who disagreed with the majority, noting in a dissenting opinion that the majority failed to address what is going too far and what is not going too far when it comes to the Legislature’s authority. The majority opinion said that issue that can be reviewed later if another law changing the superintendent’s duties is enacted.

Concerns about Superintendent Cindy Hill’s administration of the state Department of Education led to the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Matt Mead enacting the law last year. The law replaced the superintendent as head of the agency with a director appointed by the governor, although the superintendent remained one of five statewide elected officials.

Hill, a Republican who has decided to run for governor this year, was removed as head of the department in the middle of her four-year term and was provided a new, separate office.

She filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

The state is requesting a rehearing on the case from the Supreme Court. If a rehearing is granted, which is rare, the decision could be placed on hold. In addition, once the Supreme Court is done with the case, it goes back to the lower District Court where the lawsuit was originally filed for further proceedings.

Besides the legal uncertainty, lawmakers say they have little time to address the superintendent matter during the short budget session and may need to call a special session.

The Legislature’s Management Council decided later Monday to sponsor a bill that could lead to a special legislative session later this year to deal with fallout from the decision.

Under the proposal, a committee would be formed between legislative sessions to study the superintendent’s duties and make recommendations to the Legislature, which could then be called into special session to consider the recommendations.

Kite, who along with the other justices received polite applause when introduced Monday during the joint session, also spoke about the needs of the state’s court system, such as salary increases for employees and improved courthouse security.