Impeachment in South Dakota

The chamber of the South Dakota State House of Representatives

On November 9, the South Dakota State Legislature will meet in special session to consider the impeachment of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. The matter stems from the accident in September 2020 in which Ravnsborg, while driving on Highway 14 west of Highmore, struck pedestrian Joe Boever, who died from his injuries.

The November 9 session merely starts the process. House Speaker Spencer Gosch has already announced his intention to appoint during the special session a nine-member committee to investigate the matter and consider whether to pursue articles of impeachment.

An earlier impeachment effort during the 2021 legislative session was set aside pending the results of the civil and criminal actions. Those proceedings now have ended; a criminal trial was avoided after Ravnsborg pled “no contest” to two misdemeanor traffic violations, and a civil action brought by Boever’s family against Ravnsborg has been settled. This means that, to date, most of what investigators learned about the matter has not been disclosed to the public. It remains to be seen how much new information comes to light through the legislative process, although a recently-released South Dakota News Watch poll indicates that, based on what the public already knows, a strong majority favors impeachment of Ravnsborg.

There is no history of impeachment of a statewide elected offficial in South Dakota; even these initial steps are the furthest that an impeachment has gone in the history of the state. In fact, the South Dakota State Legislature’s rules do not include provisions for conducting an impeachment, demonstrating the unprecedented nature of the situation.

Credit to Seth Tupper, though, for finding one instance of an attempted impeachment of a circuit judge in 1917. That year, Rep. Frank M. Lockhart filed articles of impeachment against Judge Levi McGee. Lockhart alleged that McGee had interfered with a land survey. The House rejected moving forward with impeachment by a vote of 74-23.

At a high level, the mechanics of South Dakota’s impeachment provision are similar to impeachment in the U.S. Constitution, making it familiar to those who have followed impeachments in recent decades involving Presidents William J. Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Stated simply, the House of Representatives may pass articles of impeachment by a simple majority. An impeachment functions like an indictment in a criminal case; it is not a final judgment, but initiates a charge. If the House passes an impeachment, the Senate sits as a jury in a criminal case, and a two-thirds vote of members-elect (that is, twenty-four senators) is required to remove the officer.

Those subject to impeachment are “The Governor and other state and judicial officers.” One innovation in the South Dakota impeachment power, that differs from the U.S. Constitution, is that an official who has been impeached by the House of Representatives is suspended from office, pending the trial in the Senate.

(I have copied the SD Constitution’s entire impeachment article, which is pretty brief, at the end of this post. The impeachment article was original to the 1889 Constitution and has not been amended; section 3 actually still refers to “county judges, justices of the peace, and police magistrates,” all offices that were abolished by the revised judicial article passed in 1972.)

The South Dakota State Legislature has never reached the point of considering articles of impeachment. In part this is because South Dakota’s elected officials have, for the most part, avoided misconduct that would rise to that level. There are a couple notable exceptions.

Most famously, State Treasurer W. W. Taylor stole the entire state treasury when he left office in January 1895. In those early days of statehood, the state treasurer literally took personal possession of state funds, depositing them under his own name in the bank of his choice. This made it easy for Taylor, just prior to leaving office, to simply cash out the accounts. The story is best told C. Perry Armin’s “A State Treasurer Defaults: The Taylor Case of 1895,” which was published by South Dakota History in 1986 and is available online. A shorter overview of the matter was written by John Andrews of South Dakota Magazine in 2014.

Taylor’s misconduct, the embezzlement of the entire treasury, would have clearly justified removal from office; however, he committed his crime just as his term expired, and he had already left office when it was discovered. Therefore, an impeachment was moot and the State Legislature never considered one.

A second instance, less well known, occurred in 1942, when felony charges were brought against State Treasurer William G. Douglas and Commissioner of School and Public Lands Earl Hammerquist. Both officials were accused of accepting kickbacks in the issuing of state bonds. State Treasurer Douglas was convicted and promptly resigned, avoiding an impeachment. Commissioner Hammerquist was acquitted; he completed the final months of his term but was not reelected in 1942. Impeachment therefore was not considered in either case.

Governor Kristi Noem called on Ravnsborg to resign, first after the investigation was concluded and then again after the criminal matter was resolved, but Ravnsborg has shown no sign that he will do so. That means that, for now, the matter is squarely before the South Dakota State Legislature, which will make history as it considers South Dakota’s first-ever impeachment.

Update: On November 9, House of Representatives met in special session and passed HR 7001, which created a House Select Committee on Investigation to investigate the Ravnsborg matter and make a recommendation to the House. The special session adjourned for the day, and committee met in closed session a few times and held its first open hearing in January 2022. The House will convene in April 12 to consider the committee’s report, which recommends against impeachment, and will also consider impeachment articles drafted by other House members.

Constitution of South Dakota, Article IV: Impeachment

§ 1.   Power of impeachment in house–Majority required. The house of representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment.

The concurrence of a majority of all members elected shall be necessary to an impeachment.

§ 2.   Trial of impeachments–Presiding officer. All impeachments shall be tried by the senate. When sitting for that purpose the senators shall be upon oath or affirmation to do justice according to law and evidence. No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members elected. When the Governor or lieutenant governor is on trial the presiding judge of the Supreme Court shall preside.

§ 3.   Officers subject to impeachment–Grounds–Removal from office–Criminal prosecution. The Governor and other state and judicial officers, except county judges, justices of the peace and police magistrates, shall be liable to impeachment for drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, or malfeasance or misdemeanor in office, but judgment in such cases shall not extend further than to removal from office and disqualification to hold any office of trust or profit under the state. The person accused whether convicted or acquitted shall nevertheless be liable to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment according to law.

§ 4.   Removals of officers not subject to impeachment. All officers not liable to impeachment shall be subject to removal for misconduct or malfeasance or crime or misdemeanor in office, or for drunkenness or gross incompetency, in such manner as may be provided by law.

§ 5.   Suspension of duties between impeachment and acquittal. No officer shall exercise the duties of his office after he shall have been impeached and before his acquittal.

§ 6.   Lieutenant governor not to try Governor. On trial of an impeachment against the Governor the lieutenant governor shall not act as a member of the court.

§ 7.   Service of copy of impeachment before trial required. No person shall be tried on impeachment before he shall have been served with a copy thereof at least twenty days previous to the day set for trial.

§ 8.   Impeachment twice for same offense prohibited. No person shall be liable to impeachment twice for the same offense.