- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A divided Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a new law stripping many powers and duties from the state superintendent of public instruction is unconstitutional, adding another twist in an ongoing intraparty feud over state education policy that also involves the Legislature and the governor.

The court’s 3-2 ruling came in a lawsuit by Republican state schools Superintendent Cindy Hill challenging the law enacted a year ago by the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Matt Mead.

The law took effect in the middle of Hill’s four-year term. As a result, the superintendent remains one of the five statewide elected officials but no longer oversees the Wyoming Department of Education.

The law put the administration of the agency, which has about 150 employees and is responsible for about $1 billion in education funding a year, under a director appointed by the governor. Hill was moved out of the department and provided a separate office with a budget of about $1.3 million and a half dozen employees.

Hill argued the law made a fundamental change to state government and should have required an amendment to the state Constitution. The state contended that the Wyoming Constitution empowers the Legislature to manage the state’s education system, including the superintendent’s administrative role.

It was not immediately clear what the ruling will mean to the daily administration of the state Department of Education and whether Hill will see her powers restored instantly.

There are still some formal court procedures and the logistics of replacing the current director that must be addressed before Hill can resume her administration of the department.

Hill said during a brief news conference that it was a “great day for the people of Wyoming” and that she’ll be “resuming my constitutional and statutory duties.”

“I look forward to working with the staff at the Wyoming Department of Education and the legislators and the governor’s office,” she said. “There will be some challenges, but I am confident that we’ll be productive and that we will move ahead positively and we’ll get back to the most important work, the most important work, growing our kids here in Wyoming.

She said she and her staff were implementing plans to make the transition back to the agency.

The governor’s office issued a statement that it was evaluating the decision but that there will be no immediate changes until the court process is completed. The matter heads back to the lower state court that sought the Supreme Court’s opinion on the constitutionality of the law.

House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, declined to comment on the ruling, saying the news Tuesday of the death of Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, made other issues “pale in comparison.”

Other legislative leaders and lawmakers who pushed for the law could not be immediately reached for comment. The Legislature is set to open its four-week budget session on Feb. 10.

The majority high court opinion authored by Justice E. James Burke and supported by Justices Michael K. Davis and Barton Voigt said the law “impermissibly transfers” general supervision of public schools to an appointed director.

“Under the act, the superintendent no longer maintains the power of general supervision of the public schools,” Burke wrote.

Davis and Voigt added that the proper course was to amend the state Constitution through a ballot amendment.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Marilyn Kite and retired Justice Michael Golden said the state Supreme Court in effect had exceeded its own powers with a decision that “undermines the very foundation of education in the state.”

“In reaching the conclusion it does, the majority crosses over the line between the appropriate exercise of judicial review and interference in matters within the province of the Legislature,” they wrote.

Lawmakers have said they were forced to remove Hill because she had redirected state money to programs not authorized by the Legislature and had hindered legislative education reform efforts, among other reasons.

Hill said Tuesday that the law was a “misguided and unfortunate mistake that made it impossible for me to keep my promises that I made to the people of Wyoming.”

“But now it is time to return to work and focus on the children of Wyoming,” she said.

However, Hill still faces significant challenges.

A special state House committee has been empaneled to investigate Hill’s management of the department. The investigation is unprecedented in Wyoming and could lead to impeachment proceedings against Hill.

The committee heard testimony earlier this month about possible misuse of federal funds, nepotism and an effort to hide information from the Legislature by the agency.

Hill, who has decided to run for governor next year, has denied any wrongdoing and has defended her administration of the agency.

A drive by Hill supporters and others to repeal the law fell well short of collecting the number of signatures required to put it on the statewide ballot.

House Judiciary Chairman Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said Tuesday that he had warned legislative leaders last year that the law was unconstitutional and that removing Hill from office would take a constitutional amendment.

“On all sides, I’ve been there 10 years, and this is the hardest two years I’ve had to go through,” Gingery said. “I think we could have done this very differently.”

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Associated Press writer Ben Neary contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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