Lieutenant Governors and the Role of Succession

E-Newsletter Issue #73/July 7, 2011

When former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2010, he set off a chain of events not seen in the state for 140 years. That’s the last time a vacancy occurred in the governor’s office and the last time the state had to consider its line of succession.

Under the state’s constitution, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin took over the duties of running the state after Manchin’s departure. But the change raised several questions that the West Virginia Supreme Court had to decide. Among those questions, how soon an election must be held to select a permanent replacement to fill out Manchin’s unexpired term and whether Tomblin’s role as “acting governor” created a conflict under the separation of powers provision in the state constitution as he also served as president of the Senate.

Tomblin said the situation illustrated the need for the office of lieutenant governor to give West Virginia a more distinct line of succession to the governor’s office. Tomblin, who’s served as Senate president—and thus, the next in line for the governor’s office—for the past 17 years, thinks the line of succession should be clearer.

“This has only happened one other time in the history of our state, and it was after our first governor was elected to the United States Senate,” Tomblin said. “The Senate president at that time served for six days until it was time for the new governor (who had just been elected) to take office.”

Two years remained on Manchin’s term when he resigned as governor to move to the U.S. Senate. As president of the Senate, Tomblin took over as soon as Manchin’s resignation took effect, Nov. 15, 2010. But by virtue of having to hold the office of Senate president to serve as acting governor, Tomblin had to be re-elected to that post in the 2011 legislative session to continue serving in the governor’s office. In addition, the succession triggered a legal challenge about when the next election for governor should be held.

The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in January that an “acting governor” could hold the office for only one year, which means an election to fill Manchin’s unexpired term must be held by Nov. 15, 2011, according to a Nov. 15 article in The Charleston Gazette. That will leave just one more year on the term. Tomblin is a candidate for the office, as are several other legislative leaders.

But Tomblin pushed the idea of amending the state’s constitution to include the office of lieutenant governor. In 2000, the state bestowed upon the Senate president the title of lieutenant governor, but it didn’t have constitutional backing, Tomblin said. And, it still left questions he thought would best be addressed by establishing the office through constitutional amendment.

The legislature didn’t see it that way. In fact, a resolution proposing an amendment requiring a statewide vote on creation of the lieutenant governor’s post was never introduced in the 2011 legislative session. West Virginia is one of only four states that puts a legislator next in line of succession for the top executive branch seat, the Gazette article said. The line of succession also raised the question of separation of powers as outlined in the state constitution. Tomblin stressed throughout that he would not preside over the Senate while acting as governor. In a Dec. 28, 2010, statement, he said he was working with colleagues in the Senate to establish the position of acting Senate president to preside while he served as acting governor.

Many in the Senate agreed with Tomblin’s assessment. If the Senate president is serving as acting governor, the Senate would need an acting leader, many in the state argued. Sen. Brooks McCabe said in his blog that while some legislators contend the acting governor should also retain his position as Senate president, a majority of lawmakers disagreed. “… One doesn’t have to be a constitutional scholar to recognize potential conflicts of interest and possible problems associated with compromising a separation of powers,” he wrote Jan. 18.

The West Virginia situation this year mirrored one in New Jersey several years ago. In 2005, voters there approved a constitutional amendment to establish the office of lieutenant governor and resolve the murkiness surrounding such a situation that occurred in New Jersey.

Kim Guadagno, who voted against the amendment creating the position in 2005, became New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor in 2010. She also serves as secretary of state.

“You really are writing on a clean slate. You have to think of everything—not only with what I’d like to see, but what do you think lieutenant governors are going to want to see or need in the future?” she said in January 2011, as quoted on Guadagno worked with Gov. Chris Christie to shape the responsibilities of her office. In the combined office, Guadagno has taken over the role of the secretary of state—including overseeing the arts, tourism and cultural programs as well as the Division of Elections—and has taken on a key economic development role in Christie’s administration, according to

The amendment to the New Jersey State Constitution, which took effect Jan. 17, 2006, required a substantial role for the lieutenant governor, who runs on a ticket with the governor.

In four states, senate presidents are the first in line of succession to the governor’s office. Two of those states—Tennessee and West Virginia—bestow the title of lieutenant governor in recognition of that function, according to the National Lieutenant Governors Association. In the other two states—New Hampshire and Maine—the Senate president is first in line of succession but does not carry the title of lieutenant governor, according to NLGA. In three other states—Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming—the secretary of states move to the governor’s office when there’s a vacancy; the remaining 43 states include an office of lieutenant governor.

The office of lieutenant governor has been shown to be an important one in state governments across the country. Despite varying job responsibilities, they all share one—that of succeeding to the governor’s office should a vacancy occur.

Read the full article and others like it in the 2011 Book of the States, available online.

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