Wyoming Supreme Court hears superintendent lawsuit

2013-08-20T07:37:00Z 2013-11-19T16:34:06Z Wyoming Supreme Court hears superintendent lawsuitThe Associated Press The Associated Press
August 20, 2013 7:37 am  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — It would be a "train wreck" if the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the superintendent of public instruction has authority over the Legislature to manage the state's public school system, a state attorney argued Tuesday.

The court heard about an hour of arguments in Superintendent Cindy Hill's lawsuit challenging a new law enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead last winter that stripped her office of many of its powers and duties.

The change occurred in the middle of Hill's four-year term. The superintendent remains one of the five statewide elected officials but no longer oversees the Wyoming Department of Education.

Hill argues the law usurps the state constitution by transferring too many powers and duties to an unelected agency director appointed by the governor.

The state contends that the Wyoming Constitution empowers the Legislature to manage the state's education system, including the superintendent's administrative role in the system.

The court said it would issue a decision later.

About 80 people attended the session in the court's chambers.

The justices' focus during their questioning of attorneys on both sides centered on two provisions of the constitution.

One states that the "legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction." The other assigns "general supervision of the public schools" to the superintendent "whose powers and duties shall be prescribed by law."

Angela Dougherty, the attorney representing Hill and two citizens, said while the Legislature can limit the superintendent's authority in administering the state's education system, it can't transfer those powers and duties to the governor or an unelected director because the superintendent would have no "general supervision" over the education system.

"Either we live under a constitutional government or we do not," Dougherty said.

But Peter Michael, interim state attorney general, countered that all previous Supreme Court decisions, including a landmark case on providing uniform public education statewide, recognized that the Legislature was constitutionally responsible for overseeing the statewide education system.

"If this is declared unconstitutional, you got a train wreck," Michael said.

After the hearing, Hill said that "general supervision" of schools belongs to the superintendent and not the Legislature.

"I don't believe that's what the constitution provides nor do I believe that's what the people believe the constitution provides," Hill said.

Sen. Hank Coe, one of the authors of the new law, noted the questions from justices about "general supervision" of schools and actual administration of the school system.

"Clearly there's a real difference there," Coe, R-Cody, said.

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.

In addition, since the legislative session, an inquiry into the Education Department's operations reported that Hill may have misused federal funds while she ran the agency. A special House committee has been created to investigate further - an unprecedented move in Wyoming history that could be a step toward possible impeachment proceedings against Hill, depending on the committee' findings and recommendation.

Hill has denied any wrongdoing and has defended her administration of the agency.

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