State House passes first-ever impeachment

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg

Today, the State House of Representatives voted, 36-31, to impeach Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. The impeachment resolution, which included two articles of impeachment, was sponsored by Rep. Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican, and passed with no votes to spare. The vote means that Ravnsborg will be immediately suspended from his duties, pending a trial by the State Senate.

The circumstances leading to the impeachment have been widely reported, stemming from a vehicle accident in September 2020 in which a car driven by Ravnsborg left the roadway and struck Joe Boever, a pedestrian walking alongside the highway.

This is the first time in South Dakota history that the State House has passed articles of impeachment against a state official. It was also the first time that impeachment articles were considered against a statewide elected official; the only earlier instance where impeachment was considered, discovered by Seth Tupper, was 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.

An earlier effort to impeach Ravnsborg during the 2021 legislative session was set aside pending the results of the civil and criminal action relating to the case. Those proceedings ended after Ravnsborg pled “no contest” to two misdemeanor traffic violations, and a civil action brought by Boever’s family against Ravnsborg was settled.

Following that, the State House met in special session on November 9, 2021, to initiate consideration of impeachment. That special session was technically “left open” in a recess as a special committee met to consider impeachment articles. That committee voted 6-2 against impeachment; today’s House vote for impeachment was contrary to that recommendation. Governor Kristi Noem, who had called on Ravnsborg to resign, was also in favor of impeachment, as she said most recently this morning in response to a last-minute letter from Ravnsborg to the House. She issued a one-sentence statement following the vote: “Today, the House of Representatives did the right thing for the people of South Dakota and for Joe Boever’s family.”

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 shared the SD Constitution’s entire impeachment article, which is pretty brief, in an earlier 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.