February 29, 2012
Judge to rule on 'practical farmer' law

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lawyer for state Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, on Wednesday blasted as unconstitutional a 100-year-old law that imposes restrictions on who may run for the office of state agriculture commissioner.

 Helmick, the owner of a Pocahontas County bottled water plant, announced his candidacy for the agriculture post earlier this year. Last week, an attorney for L. Joe Starcher, a private citizen, filed a state Supreme Court petition to bar him from running.

Starcher, through his attorney Christopher Pritt, argued that Helmick should not be able to run for commissioner because a 1911 state law bars anyone other than "practical farmers" with 10 years of farming experience from filing.

Helmick admitted Wednesday in Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom's courtroom that, by virtue of his 200-acre bottled water business, he does not consider himself a "practical farmer" by the Legislature's standards because he does not specifically grow produce or house livestock on his land.

"Obviously I would take issue with the question being asked," the senator said after the hearing. "We're in the business of bottling water. It is what it is. It's food management."

The constitution, however, conflicts with the 1911 law in terms of who should be eligible to take part in an election, Helmick's lawyer, Alex Macia said. The document does not impose any specific restrictions on the office of the agriculture commissioner.

"It says very simply that if you're entitled to vote, you're entitled to hold office," Macia said, pointing out that the constitution does not require candidates for most state offices to have any experience in the field whatsoever. The attorney general, for instance, does not have to be a lawyer.

The constitution does allow the Legislature to pass laws imposing qualifications for some specific state offices, like family court judges, but the Legislature cannot pre-emptively pass a restrictive law unless the constitution allows it to do so, Macia said.

"Unless authority is delegated [in the constitution], then the Legislature can't touch it," Macia said.

Bloom appeared to agree, and told the lawyers that he could not find any language in the constitution that gives lawmakers the specific authority to create requirements to run for state offices.

Assistant state Attorney General Tom Rodd said the office of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is neutral on the issue. The judge is expected to decide whether or not Helmick should be able to run for the office in a few days, after which the case may be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Tay...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.

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