The government of West Virginia was created as a result of the Civil War. The western counties of Virginia organized the new state with the adoption of its first constitution, and in 1863 West Virginia was accepted by the federal government as the 35th state of the United States. The new state suffered from instability until its present constitution was adopted in 1872, resolving disagreements between the formerly Confederate east and south and the Unionist north. The 1872 constitution, with later modernizing amendments, still serves as the basic law of the state.
Our state government is characterized by Southern-style rural county organizations with three-member boards of commissioners and powerful sheriffs, rather than the township-village format of New England and the Mid-Atlantic seaboard states. West Virginia’s state government is fairly typical, with a large two-house legislature, a governor with moderate powers, and a unified court system.
The executive power is shared by the governor and five elected state officials (the secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, commissioner of agriculture, and attorney general) who serve four-year terms and are often reelected. The election of these officers is unusual since they are commonly appointed by governors in other states. The governor can succeed himself but is limited to two successive terms in office. Together with an office staff, the governor, aided by a department of administration, various other departments, and boards and commissions in the executive branch, oversees and guides the work of hundreds of appointed officials. A personnel division recruits and trains civil service workers using modern merit system principles.
West Virginia does not have a lieutenant governor, with the president of the state senate next in the line of succession after the governor. The governor may call special sessions of the legislature, exercise a line-item veto of appropriation bills, and veto bills in their entirety. He may ‘‘pocket veto’’ a bill simply by taking no action if the legislature adjourns within five days of the bill’s passage. The governor has great influence in determining public policy through his annual State of the State messages, his preparation of the budget and submission of bills, and as head of his political party.
The legislature convenes at the beginning of the year in a 60-day session. The 100 delegates serve for two years each, and the 34 senators serve for four years each. Members of each house may be reelected to an unlimited number of terms. The legislature holds interim meetings of key members of the major standing committees for three days every month when not in official session. Since West Virginia is a small state with limited population, there are close relations and easy access between legislators and their constituents.
The size of West Virginia’s congressional delegation fluctuated throughout the 20th century, as dictated by the U.S. Census, which is taken every 10 years. The state had six representatives from the 1910s through the 1950s. In the latter half of the 20th century, the population of the Mountain State either declined or showed only slow growth compared with the rest of the nation. Consequently, the number of representatives declined from six in the 1950s to three as a result of the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
West Virginia is a two-party state, although the Democratic Party now has a large majority of the voter registration and dominates both houses of the legislature. Occasionally, a Republican wins an elective executive office or the governorship; but in terms of public policy, the Republican Party is in the minority. Third-party organizations are weak and rarely obtain enough votes to be recognized as a legal political party and field candidates for office. West Virginia is a primary state, holding the primary election in May, late in the presidential campaign cycle.
There are 55 counties in West Virginia, mostly rural. The school systems are organized along county lines and run by county boards of education. Many counties are subdivided into public service districts to regulate water and sewer systems. Counties are legal entities for elections, property taxes, health and sanitation services, law enforcement, courts, and record keeping. Except for Jefferson County, counties are governed by a three-member county commission with the county sheriff usually the strongest individual officer. Jefferson County has a five-member county commission. Counties are legal subdivisions of the state and are closely regulated by state law.
Most of the municipalities in West Virginia are small incorporated communities, with Charleston, Huntington, and Wheeling the largest cities. There is limited home rule authority. Unincorporated municipalities are governed by state law outlining the cities’ structure, while cities with more than 2,000 inhabitants operate under charters spelling out their form of government (mayor-council, commission type, or council-manager) and their powers.
There are three major tiers of courts in West Virginia. The lowest are the magistrate courts, which exist in every county and process criminal misdemeanors and minor civil cases, and the municipal courts, which handle infractions of municipal law. At the next level, important litigation takes place in 31 circuit courts. These are the state’s comprehensive general jurisdiction trial courts, with jurisdiction in all criminal, civil, and juvenile matters. The Supreme Court of Appeals is the highest state court, with five judges elected for staggered 12-year terms. Despite its name, the court hears original cases as well as appeals. It also possesses rule-making powers governing the operation of all state courts.
Consolidation, mergers, regional agencies, and cooperation among cities, counties, and even states have had a checkered history in West Virginia. In 1963, the legislature authorized counties to cooperate with other local governments and the federal government. One result has been the creation of regional development authorities to handle floods, fires, and sewers. A second innovation was the creation of 11 regional councils to organize public service districts. There has been functional consolidation such as combined jails, bus transportation, and joint fire fighting arrangements.
Although West Virginia is a small state in size and population, it possesses a large number of local governments and organizations. With its 55 counties, many municipalities, magisterial districts, and other divisions, it is apparent that West Virginians have a strong local attachment and a strong loyalty to localities. The culture is traditional and conservative with strong historical ties. Government is highly personal, based on family and social connections, and is regarded as playing primarily a custodial role.
This Article was written by Evelyn L. Harris
Last Revised on October 12, 2010