- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming state schools Superintendent Cindy Hill won a key court decision, but she still faces a legislative investigation into whether she committed any impeachable offenses.

A divided Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state Legislature went too far when it removed the superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education.

The court’s 3-2 ruling came in a lawsuit by Hill, a Republican, 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.

“It’s a great day for the people of Wyoming,” Hill said in a brief news conference after the ruling.

But as Hill made plans to resume administration of the Education Department, there’s still a special state House committee investigating Hill’s management of the department in 2011 and 2012. 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 as a Republican, has denied any wrongdoing and says the investigation is a political witch hunt.

The investigation has been put on hold as the Legislature prepares for its budget session on Feb. 10 and while the committee awaits results from a federal audit of the Education Department into any misused money under Hill’s administration of the agency.

The law Hill challenged 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.

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.

The majority high court opinion authored by Justice E. James Burke and supported by Justices Michael K. Davis and Barton Voigt said the Legislature has the authority to change the powers of the superintendent but not to the point that it threatens the superintendent’s constitutional authority of general supervision of public schools.

“We recognize that the 2013 Act does not ‘eliminate’ the office of superintendent,” the opinion said. “It has, however, effectively marginalized the office and has left it ‘an empty shell.’”

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

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

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.

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

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

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.”

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

“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.”


Associated Press writer Ben Neary contributed to this report.

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