CHARLESTON, W.Va.--The West Virginia Supreme Court says the state must hold an election for governor this year.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, the court ruled that the state's founding fathers didn't intended for anyone - including Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin - to act as governor for more than a year without an election.
"We believe the framers of the constitution . . . clearly intended that a person not elected to the post may act as governor for a period of no more than one year," the court said.
Tomblin assumed office on Nov. 15, 2010, the day Joe Manchin left to join the U.S. Senate. The court directs Tomblin to order an election "forthwith."
The unanimous opinion was written by Justice Brent Benjamin, the court's sole elected Republican. Preston County Circuit Court Judge Lawrance Miller, another Republican, was sitting on the court in place of Justice Robin Davis, who disqualified herself because she intends to run for unspecified statewide office in 2012.
Tomblin, who is acting governor by virtue of being Senate president, contended that state law allows him to serve until the next general election.
But in separate lawsuits, Citizen Action Group and Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper both said the state constitution - which overrides any state law - was not written with such a long period of service by a Senate president in mind.
The court agreed that failing to have an election would violate the rights of state voters, who have a right to choose their highest officials.
The court also said the constitution says a "new election for governor shall take place to fill the vacancy" if the vacancy occurs before the end of the third year of the four-year term.
"This language is plain and unambiguous," the court said, adding that it was a "mandatory" provision.
Further, the court found, the constitution is "consistent with the fact that our government is founded upon the right of people to elect their highest public officials."
The court's opinion actually strikes down only a small part of state law - a mere 21 words - that would delay the election until November 2012 because the vacancy in the Governor's Office occurred just after the 2010 election. The rest of the law on gubernatorial succession remains intact.
That includes a section of the law allowing political parties to hold conventions to choose their candidates for general election rather than by way of a statewide primary election.
But the justices, in what could be read as a wink and a nod, seemed to question the wisdom of the party conventions.
They note that the party convention option is "within legislative prerogative and does not violate the state constitution."