News of Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming, from the Ranger's award winning journalists.
Hill Bill ruled unconstitutional
Jan 28, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer
The state superintendent is expected to resume immediately the duties stripped from her position last year.
The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law redefining the duties of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction is unconstitutional.
Senate File 104 was signed into law last year, transferring most of Superintendent Cindy Hill's duties to a new director of education appointed by Gov. Matt Mead.
Hill was removed as head of the Wyoming Department of Education when Gov. Matt Mead signed the law, but the court's ruling means she will be reinstated.
The employment fate of Richard Crandall, the executive hired by Mead last summer at a salary reported at $168,000 per year, was uncertain. He planned a press conference of his own later Tuesday.
Vote was 3-2
Writing for the majority in the 3-2 decision filed Tuesday morning, Justice E. James Burke said the law had stripped Hill of any supervisory role over the State Department of Education. According to Article 7, Section 14 of the Wyoming Constitution, supervision of schools is to be entrusted to the state superintendent of public instruction.
SF104 included language that gave Hill "general supervision," over the Department of Education, but Burke said that reservation of power was "illusory."
"Under the Act, the Superintendent no longer has any supervisory role in the State Department of Education," Burke wrote.
"We conclude (SF104) unconstitutionally deprives the state superintendent of public instruction of the power of 'general supervision of the public schools.'"
The constitution also mandates that the superintendent's powers and duties "shall be prescribed by law." Burke says there is no
question that the Legislature has the authority to alter the powers and duties of the superintendent, but he adds that "the phrase 'prescribed by law' does not permit the Legislature to interfere with the constitutional and inherent authority of the courts.
"The statute is a clear infringement upon the constitutional and inherent power of this court to make rules," he wrote.
'I will be returning'
Superintendent Cindy Hill commended the court's decision during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. She said the ruling is a victory for the people who elected her in 2010.
"When I was elected I promised the people I would be personally committed to all of the children of Wyoming. I said I would work to improve instructional leadership in our schools and be fiscally responsible with our resources and rely on measures that we can trust," she said.
"When SF104 was passed, it was a misguided and unfortunate mistake that made it impossible for me to keep my promises."
Now, she said, it is time for her to return to work.
"I will be returning to the Wyoming Department of Education, and I'll be resuming my constitutional and statutory duties," she said. "I look forward to working with the staff of the (WDE) and the legislators and the governor's office. There will be some challenges, but I'm confident it will be productive and that we will move ahead positively."
Transition under way
John Masters, Hill's deputy superintendent of public instruction, said her staff will try to return to the WDE "with as little drama as possible."
"We just want to get back working with the kids," Masters said. "We are excited."
He guessed that the decision would be handed down to district court, where an order will be issued in the coming days or weeks outlining the disposition of the case.
In the meantime, he said the situation in Hill's office was hectic on Tuesday.
"We had no idea (the decision was coming today)," Masters said. "A Supreme Court opinion can take anywhere from a few months to 18 months. (This case) was argued in August, so we're five or six months out. But it's a complicated case -- the opinion is 82 pages -- so when you think about the work that went into it maybe this was kind of quick."
The court's opinion considers case history, state history and legal definitions and comes with a dissenting opinion from Justice Marilyn S. Kite and retired Justice Michael Golden, who stepped in after Justice William U. Hill removed himself from the case.
"Justice Golden was appointed by Justice Kite to fill Justice Hill's shoes for this purpose," Masters said.
He didn't recall that William Hill, a Riverton High School graduate, had cited a specific reason for excusing himself. The justice's wife had been employed at the WDE but moved to the governor's office soon after Cindy Hill was elected. Justice Hill and Superintendent Hill are not related.
"I think that's why he recused himself," Masters said.
Last year, soon after SF104 became law, Hill announced her intention to run for governor. Masters wasn't sure how the Supreme Court decision would affect her campaign, and Hill only had time for a few questions before leaving her Tuesday press conference for a prior engagement.
The soonest she is expected to resume her work at the WDE is Wednesday.
Hill has been in meetings this month with a legislative committee that was formed to determine whether she should be impeached from the superintendent's position. She has clashed sharply with lawmakers who pushed for the passage of SF104 for a year.
The committee announced last week that it would postpone further action until after the 2014 legislative session, which begins Feb. 10.
Gov. Mead's communications director, Renny McKay, said the governor would issue a press release regarding the decision later Tuesday and did not want to make any statements before the press release was distributed.
Mead was the defendant listed by name in the lawsuit, which is known as Kerry and Clara Powers vs. State of Wyoming and Matthew H. Mead. The entire opinion can be viewed online at www.courts.state.wy.us/Opinions.aspx.