CHEYENNE – Much of Cindy Hill’s lawsuit hinges on what it means to be state superintendent of public instruction and to supervise.
That’s according to questions asked Tuesday by Wyoming Supreme Court justices as they heard presentations from lawyers on both sides of the case.
Hill sued the state after Gov. Matt Mead signed Senate File 104 into law earlier this year. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the bill that stripped Hill of many of her duties.
Often called the “Hill bill,” SF 104 transferred those duties to a newly created director of the state Department of Education.
Platte County residents Clara and Kerry Powers also are part of the lawsuit. They maintain the bill stripped them of their vote.
Chief Justice Marilyn Kite asked why it says in statute that Hill still has general supervision of the public schools.
Though the law still requires Hill to “generally supervise,” it does not give her the ability to do so, said Hill’s lawyer, Angela Dougherty.
“Saying it doesn’t make it so,” she said.
She added that if the superintendent were to supervise the Wyoming Board of Education or the newly created director’s position, the superintendent would have more ability to fulfill the constitutional charge.
When asked if there was a difference in the superintendent having general supervision of schools, rather than supervision of education, Dougherty said state founders wanted the superintendent to be accountable.
Justices asked about the Legislature’s ability to make new offices and how that applied to the situation.
The Legislature does have the power to create new offices or positions, Dougherty said. The issue is that the position they’ve created in SF 104 is that of the superintendent, just with a different name.
They also asked if the Legislature has the power to change programs during a superintendent’s term.
Dougherty said all programs in place when a superintendent starts do not have to continue.
The problem is not that the Legislature limited Hill’s duties, Dougherty said. The problem is that the duties were given to someone else.
“(Legislators) have the ability to prescribe, not transfer (duties),” she said. “There’s no provision for transferring.”
Hill’s side has maintained that the law is an overreach by the Legislature.
“I liked how the case was presented. She presented facts and was on point,” Hill said after the oral arguments concluded. “(The justices) were attentively listening, and you could tell they had done their homework by their questions.”
Lawyers representing the state of Wyoming were asked questions about the role left to the superintendent.
Many of the changes made in SF 104 simply removed the superintendent’s duties and gave them to the appointed director, justices said.
Interim Attorney General Peter Michael said the superintendent still is able to supervise or give a broad view of education.
“Management is different than supervision,” he said.
What was removed from Hill was the daily administrative work, he added.
The changes made the superintendent’s position closer to what it originally was, Michael said.
The early role of the superintendent was to sit on several state governing boards and talk to the different school districts, he said.
The director administrates the department, and the superintendent goes out and sees what’s happening in districts, he added.
Additionally, giving the power to appoint the director to Mead doesn’t violate the constitution, Michael said.
But if the court were to find the law is unconstitutional, it would call the ruling in several earlier education finance cases into question, he said.
“If this is unconstitutional, you’ve got a train wreck,” he said. “You have to undo Washakie and Campbell.”
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.
Previously, Hill had asked for a declaratory judgment and a temporary injunction. That would have returned her responsibilities while the case was being determined.
The halt was denied by the district court. Four questions were sent to the state’s Supreme Court for an answer.
A written opinion will be released at a later date, Kite said. It is unknown when that will happen.