Hill suit calls Wyoming law a coup on superintendent office

2013-01-31T07:27:00Z 2013-04-03T11:15:14Z Hill suit calls Wyoming law a coup on superintendent officeJOSHUA WOLFSON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
January 31, 2013 7:27 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — A law that strips most of the power from the state superintendent of public instruction represents a "coup" on a constitutionally created office, her lawyer argued in court documents filed Tuesday.

The documents, which accompanied a lawsuit, claim the new law violates the state constitution by creating an appointed director to replace the state superintendent as the head of public schools in Wyoming. A lawyer for embattled schools Superintendent Cindy Hill has also filed a temporary restraining order to halt implementation of the law until a court can decide the matter.

Lawmakers disenfranchised voters by transferring many of the superintendent's duties to a governor-appointed director, the suit states. Hill and her supporters insist the change could be legally performed only through an amendment to the state constitution.

"By passing a law that strips the superintendent of the general supervision of public schools, the Wyoming Legislature and the governor have threatened the very nature of constitutional government," Hill's lawyer, Angela Dougherty, wrote in court documents arguing for a restraining order and injunction.

Platte County residents Kerry and Clara Powers, who voted for Hill and donated to her 2010 campaign, are also plaintiffs in the suit. In affidavits filed along with the lawsuit, the two say the law rendered their votes meaningless.

Reached Wednesday, Dougherty declined to comment on the suit, which was filed in Laramie County District Court.

"The documents speak for themselves," she said. "We will await the judicial process."

Gov. Matt Mead is named as a defendant in the suit. He is being represented by the Wyoming Attorney General's Office, which declined to comment because the litigation is ongoing.

In a news conference Tuesday after he signed the bill, Mead said Attorney General Gregory Phillips believes the law is constitutional. Mead noted the Wyoming Supreme Court has previously held the Legislature has complete control over the state school system.

Through a spokesman, Mead declined further comment Wednesday. He has appointed Jim Rose, the executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, to serve as interim director of the Education Department.

Mead signed Senate File 104 into law after it sailed through the Wyoming Legislature with backing from Senate and House leaders in both parties.

The bill's sponsors claimed the legislation wasn't about Hill. Tension between the Legislature and the Department of Education dates back decades, they said.

Lawmakers have repeatedly sparred with Hill during her two years in office. They assigned two auditors to examine how the Education Department was following legislative mandates. Legislators have also complained the department sidestepped the appropriations process when it created a professional development program for teachers.

Hill has characterized her critics as "good old boys" and said some lawmakers were threatened by her efforts to make changes at the Education Department.

The law leaves her with some duties, including administering the "teacher of the year" program and helping school districts prevent head injuries. But it removes her as head of the Education Department.

Supporters of the law say the Legislature has clear authority over matters concerning public schools and education.

Hill's lawsuit contends the state constitution grants lawmakers the ability to prescribe the superintendent's powers but not the power to remove her general authority over Wyoming's public schools. That change, she argues, effectively nullified the vote of the people who didn't elect Hill to hold a ceremonial position.

"The Legislature has overruled the electorate on who should run the state's educational system," a document in support of the restraining order states.

Hill's suit also contends the Legislature illegally transfers powers granted to the superintendent in the state constitution to the governor's office.

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