An acting governor is a constitutional position created in some U.S. states when the governor dies in office or resigns. In some states, the governor may also be declared to be incapacitated and unable to function for various reasons, including illness and absence from the state for more than a specified period.
In these instances, the state constitution will declare which official is to serve as governor, and whether this person will have all of the powers of the office or only specified ones. In many states, the person succeeding to the governorship or becoming acting governor is the lieutenant governor; however, not all states have such a position. If the state constitution provides for an acting governor in the event of the governor's disability, it will also provide for a method by which the governor can be declared to be no longer disabled.
Examples of acting governors
In New Jersey, a state which now has an office of lieutenant governor, in the event of a vacancy in the office of governor or the inability of the current governor to fulfill his/her duties through injury, the Lieutenant Governor serves as the acting governor. The acting governor serves either until the next general election, until the governor recovers from his/her injuries, or, if the governor dies/resigns occurs less than 16 months before end of the term, until the end of the term. Richard Codey served as acting governor of New Jersey until January 2006 following the resignation of Jim McGreevey in late 2004. Following the resignation of Christine Todd Whitman in 2001 to become EPA Administrator, Donald DiFrancesco assumed the acting governor's post. The position of Lieutenant Governor was created in the 2005 state election effective with the 2009 election. The Current Lieutenant Governor is Kim Guadagno. From then onward, the holder of that office will succeed in the event of vacancy in the Governor's office.
Also, following Whitman's resignation and DiFrancesco's departure, John O. Bennett also served as acting governor for three and a half days. During that time, he signed a few bills into law, gave a State of the State Address, and held parties at Drumthwacket, the New Jersey Governor's Mansion. Similarly, Richard J. Codey served as acting governor as well; owing to how control of the New Jersey State Senate was split, thus making two Senate Presidents, Codey and Bennett; each held the office of acting governor for three days. Perhaps this spectacle as much as any other factor led to the voters' decision to amend the state constitution to create the office of Lieutenant Governor.
In Massachusetts, in the event of a vacancy in the governor's office, the lieutenant governor assumes the duties of the office, but not the office for the remainder of the term, thus becoming acting governor, while retaining the lieutenant governor's office. In 1997, when William Weld resigned to pursue the ambassadorship to Mexico, Paul Cellucci took over as acting governor until his 1998 election as governor. In 2001 when Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada, Jane Swift became the acting governor for the remainder of the term.
In West Virginia, if the governorship becomes vacant, the Senate President takes the position of acting governor. If more than one year remains in the governor's term at the time of vacancy, a new election is held; otherwise, the Senate President serves the remainder of the term. A bill passed in 2000 grants the Senate President the honorary title of Lieutenant Governor, but this title is rarely used in practice and the terms of the Senate President do not correspond with governorships. Then-Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin is the first person under the current state Constitution to assume the duties of Acting Governor following the November 15, 2010 resignation of Joe Manchin following his election to the United States Senate seat vacated by the death of Robert Byrd. As there was more than one year remaining on Manchin's term as governor, a special election was held, which Tomblin won.
Disputes over powers of acting governors
The powers of an acting governor came into dispute during the 1980 Democratic primary presidential campaign of Jerry Brown, then governor of California. When he was campaigning out of state, which was often in late 1979 and early 1980, Mike Curb, a Republican who was then serving as Lieutenant Governor of California often used his position as acting governor to veto legislation, promulgate executive orders, issue proclamations, and to do other things that Brown would not likely have done had he been present in the state. This eventually resulted in litigation, much of which went in Curb's favor.
Powers of an acting governor had previously been questioned in the mid-1970s in Kentucky. In her capacity as acting governor of Kentucky in Julian Carroll's absence, Thelma Stovall, then-Lieutenant Governor, acting as governor, issued pardons, called the Kentucky General Assembly into special session to enact legislation limiting property tax increases, and purported to veto the legislature's repeal of its ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The authority of the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky to act as governor when the elected governor is out of state was repealed under a 1992 amendment to the Kentucky Constitution.
In 1993, in Pennsylvania, Governor Robert P. Casey underwent surgery that left him incapacitated for months, thus leaving Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel as acting governor. During that time, Singel fulfilled all duties of the office of governor.
On December 28, 2006, Kris Kolluri served as acting Governor of New Jersey, while New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was out of town, as was the Senate president, Assembly speaker and attorney general, all ahead of Kolluri in the line of succession. Under state law, an acting governor has to be appointed whenever the governor is absent from the state. New Jersey will get a lieutenant governor, but not until 2010. 
Practices in this area are anything but uniform from state to state. In Rhode Island, for example, the Lieutenant Governor never acts as governor, even if the Governor has left the state. In many states, if the Lieutenant Governor succeeds to the governorship, he or she is regarded as a new and succeeding governor in every sense, just as occurs when the Vice President of the United States becomes President of the United States when that office is vacated by death or resignation.
- WV Constitution article VII, § 16.
- "H.B. 4781 (Enrolled March 11, 2009)". West Virginia Legislature, 2000 Sessions. Retrieved August 16, 2009.