- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The West Virginia Supreme Court ordered Friday that a Republican fill a key state Senate vacancy, allowing the GOP to maintain its majority and move forward with an ambitious agenda.

In a 3-1 decision, Justice Margaret Workman wrote that the state law is not ambiguous about replacing a former senator who flipped parties. Not long afterward, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed Republican real estate agent Sue Cline to the seat.

Ex-Wyoming County Sen. Daniel Hall was elected as a Democrat in 2012 and turned Republican after the 2014 elections, establishing an 18-16 GOP majority. Hall recently resigned.

A Democratic appointment to replace him would have deadlocked the Senate.

Instead, Republicans will maintain the numbers to cement their policies into law, even if Tomblin vetoes them. Among the most divisive proposals are a right-to-work bill that passed the Senate by a 17-16 party-line vote Thursday and the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage for public construction projects.

The GOP would need a simple majority in each chamber to override a policy veto. The House of Delegates favors Republicans even more widely.

Senate President Bill Cole and the state Republican Party commended the court’s decision.

“Our task at hand now is to move forward, and to get to work to address our state’s troubled economy, our budget which is in crisis, and our workforce which is in critical need of a jump start. Without further distraction, we plan to get to work,” Cole, R-Mercer, said in a news release.

Democratic attorneys had contended that state law is ambiguous about appointing a replacement based on political party at the time an official was elected or when the official resigned. They said a Democratic replacement would uphold the will of the voters. Court filings by Tomblin also say he would’ve appointed a Democrat.

In the opinion, Workman wrote that the Democrats’ interpretation of the law is “profoundly strained and constitutes a misreading of statutory language that is clear in its meaning.” The statute requires an appointment based on the person’s political party “immediately preceding the vacancy,” Workman wrote.

The court also found no reason to believe that West Virginia’s law for replacing legislators is unconstitutional.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Menis Ketchum acknowledged the political ramifications of the case, but reiterated that the statute is clear.

“I realize that my vote in this case effectively eliminates any chance of my being re-elected to our Supreme Court,” wrote Ketchum, who was elected a Democrat.

Justice Robin Davis dissented. Justice Brent Benjamin recused himself.

The 60-day legislative session began Jan. 13.

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