CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Senate leadership agreed Wednesday to take a year to study whether they should invoke a long-standing state law giving the House of Delegates and Senate subpoena power.
On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee voted to recommend that SR27, which would amend Senate rules to invoke the subpoena power, be a study resolution for legislative interim meetings this year. The proposed rule change would also give Senate committee chairpersons authority to put individuals testifying before the committees under oath.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the issue of extending Senate powers is complex, and warrants study by a Judiciary interim committee.
"I just hate to change the rules at the last minute, and have everybody subpoenaing everybody," he said in Senate rules committee Wednesday.
Ray Ratliff, counsel to the Senate president, said state law gives the House and Senate subpoena power, a provision the state "inherited" when it adopted the first state code based on laws in Virginia.
Ratliff suggested the Senate study whether to invoke subpoena power, noting, "It is quite full of legal issues."
He said the House adopted a House rule regarding subpoena power in the 1970s, only to have it challenged in a case that made it to the state Supreme Court in 1976, involving then-State Police superintendent Robert Bonar, who refused to appear before a House committee.
In that case, Ratliff noted, the court ruled the Legislature's subpoena power is not absolute, and there must be a proper legislative purpose, as well as evidence the documents or testimony sought would otherwise not be available.
Ratliff said another concern is that the subpoena authority could lead to McCarthyism -- meaning a committee could run amok subpoenaing multiple witnesses, reminiscent to the anti-communist witch-hunt by U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.
Another concern, Ratliff said, is that when an individual is subpoenaed to testify before the Legislature, that person is immune from criminal prosecution based on that testimony.
Subpoena power is likely to be one of several issues the Legislature will study during monthly interim meetings from April through next January.