Ravnsborg removed in historic impeachment trial

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was removed today from his office, and barred from serving in state office, following a trial before the State Senate. The trial ended Tuesday afternoon with senators voting, with the required two-thirds vote, in favor of two articles of impeachment. The first article, for “Crimes Causing the Death of Joseph Boever,” passed 24-9, achieving exactly the support necessary for passage. The second article, for “Malfeasance in Office Following the Death of Joseph Boever,” passed easily by a vote of 31-2. A third vote to disqualify Ravnsborg from future state office passed 33-0.

The Senate trial marks the end of a sad chapter in South Dakota history, which began on September 12, 2020 when Joe Boever was struck and killed by Ravnsborg’s car while Boever was walking along Highway 14 near Highmore. The State House had passed articles of impeachment against Ravnsborg on a narrow 36-31 vote on April 12, 2022. The impeachment articles, filed by Rep. Will Mortenson of Pierre, followed an earlier impeachment attempt by Mortenson in 2021. That effort had stalled when House leaders decided to await the conclusion of the criminal and civil proceedings against Ravnsborg; once those were resolved, the special session was called and the impeachment process began again.

Ravnsborg becomes the first official in South Dakota history to be removed from office through the impeachment process. He was already the first state elected official to have articles of impeachment filed against him, and the first to be impeached by the House. The impeachment of Ravnsborg was only the second ever considered, following one instance of an attempted impeachment of a circuit judge in 1917.

Ravnsborg is the third South Dakota attorney general to leave office mid-term. John L. Pyle (the father of Gladys Pyle) died in office in 1902, and Governor Charles N. Herreid appointed A. W. Burtt to complete the term. In 2009, Attorney General Larry Long resigned to accept an appointment as a circuit court judge; Governor Mike Rounds appointed U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley to fill the vacancy.

The State Legislature also made history by its unique use of a special legislative session for the purpose of the impeachment. This is the 30th special session in state history, but it is unique in that it was originally convened on November 9, 2021, reconvened a few times, and completed its work on June 21-22, 2022 with the Senate trial. This means that although each house only met for four “session days,” the total duration from beginning to end is 226 days. That is by far the longest special session in state history, eclipsing a 1950 special session called by Governor George T. Mickelson to create public power districts and authorize highway construction; that session spanned 11 days from February 6-16, 1950. (At that time the regular legislative session was only held in odd-numbered years). In fact, this special session eclipsed the 2022 regular session – the special session began before it, ran concurrently with it, and outlasted it.

Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden, the president of the Senate, confers with President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck and former Lt. Governor Matt Michels, who acted as special counsel to the presiding officer.

Another historical note from the impeachment trial is the unique role played by former Lt. Governor Matt Michels, who assisted Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden as counsel to the president of the senate. Michels is the longest-serving presiding officer in the history of the State Legislature, and Rhoden and Michels are friends going back to their days serving together in the State House, when Michels was speaker while Rhoden was majority leader. Rhoden invited Michels to assist him as Rhoden became the first lieutenant governor in state history to preside over a Senate trial, and there has never been more experience at the rostrum of the Senate – between the two of them, Michels and Rhoden have served as presiding officer in 16 regular legislative sessions and 8 special sessions (including the impeachment special session).

Ravnsborg’s removal from office is effective immediately; he has been suspended from his duties as Attorney General since the articles of impeachment were passed on April 12. Since that time, Chief Deputy Attorney General Charlie McGuigan has been acting attorney general.

Now that Ravnsborg has been removed, Governor Kristi Noem will appoint a new attorney general to serve the remainder of Ravnsborg’s term, which lasts until January 2023. She has not made any public statements as to whom she might consider for that appointment, although she has been vocal in calling for Ravnsborg’s resignation, or removal from office, since the investigation concluded last year.

Later this week, the South Dakota Republican Party will choose its nominee for attorney general at the State Republican Convention in Watertown. Even prior to his conviction and disqualification, Ravnsborg had removed himself from consideration; the two announced candidates are Ravnsborg’s immediate predecessor, Marty Jackley; and David Natvig, who was appointed by Ravnsborg to be director of the Division of Criminal Investigation. Jackley seeks to become the first former attorney general to return to the office; he lost the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary to Noem, who had endorsed him this year as he seeks to return to his former role.