O’Bannon’s Death Puts Focus On Transition Procedures

By: - September 18, 2003 12:00 am

Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s sudden death last week brought renewed focus on state leadership succession procedures, and political experts said it was a reminder that some states need an update.

In 42 states, the lieutenant governor succeeds the governor, but in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, West Virginia and Tennessee, the Senate president is next in line. And in Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming, the secretary of state succeeds the state’s chief executive.

O’Bannon, a Democrat in his second term, was the third Indiana governor to die in office. Fifty other governors also died in office since 1900, according to the National Governors Association.

“People may view (the death of a governor) as a rarity, but it happens, and people do need to prepare for it,” said Julia Hurst, executive director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

The last state governor to die in office was Missouri’s Mel Carnahan (D), who was killed in a plane crash along with his son and an aide while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in October 2001.

Gov. Tauese P.F. Sunia of the U.S. territory American Somoa died in late March while enroute to Honolulu to receive medical treatment.

The transfer of power went smoothly in Indiana because the state constitution clearly spelled out succession procedures not only in case of death, but also incapacitation, Hurst said.

Hurst said not all state procedures are as clear in terms of incapacitation and many states have never tested their procedures. O’Bannon suffered a stroke while attending a Chicago conference and was in a drug-induced coma before he died. State law specified that in the event of the governor’s inability to discharge his duties, the Indiana Supreme Court would be the arbiter of whether power should be transferred to the lieutenant governor.

The court handed the reins of government to Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan (D) six days after O’Bannon was stricken, and Kernan served in an acting capacity before assuming the state’s top office officially hours after O’Bannon died on Sept. 13.

Kernan said he won’t choose a replacement lieutenant governor until at least next week when memorial services for O’Bannon are completed, The Indianapolis Star reported. A statewide memorial service will be held Friday, Sept. 19.

Under Indiana’s constitution, Kernan has the power to appoint a new lieutenant governor, but a number of states don’t address how to fill the the number two office once it’s vacated.

In 2001 when Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) was appointed ambassador to Canada and was replaced by then-Lt. Gov. Jane Swift (R), for example, the office of lieutenant governor remained open for more than a year.

“Had something happened to (Gov. Swift), the office would have gone to the Senate president, but the office of lieutenant governor remained vacant and that’s been handled in different ways in different states,” Hurst said.

Dennis Dresang, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor, said states could benefit from tuning up their succession procedures.

“Just because you have a process doesn’t necessarily mean that you like the process,” Dresang told Stateline.org.

Virginia passed legislation on the issue this year, Hurst said. In March, the general assembly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would add more than a dozen elected officials to the line of succession for governor to keep the state from being politically decapitated in the event of a terrorist attack.

The measure must be approved by a second session of the general assembly next January and then be approved by voters in November 2004, the state’s legislative services office said.

Even when gubernatorial succession is anticipated, ambiguities in state law can create confusion.

Such is the case in Utah, which is anticipating its first succession in state history due to Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt’s (R) nomination to replace former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman (R) as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Leavitt will be replaced by Lt. Governor Olene Walker (R), who would become the state’s first female chief executive.

“Apparently (the Utah) constitution says that the lieutenant governor assumes the responsibility of governor,’ so somebody asked for an attorney general opinion clarifying whether she gets to use the title, or does she stay lieutenant governor and just do all the work?” Hurst said.

The attorney general has since ruled that Walker would assume both the title and responsibilities of the office.

In other cases, transfers of power are brief as would be the case when a governor temporarily leaves the state or country. One health-related instance of this occurred in June 1993 when then-Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey (D) had a heart and liver transplant. Thad Beyle, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: “Lt. Gov. Mark Singel became the acting governor for an extended period of time, but the uncertainty of Casey’s health made Singel’s tenure very uncertain.” 

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