‘A political trial’: Impeachment’s long road to a possible Senate trial

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — At 10 a.m. Tuesday, both chambers of the South Dakota Legislature will gavel-in a special session to consider impeachment for the first time in the state’s 132-year history. 

South Dakota’s Constitution states “the sole power of impeachment” resides with the House of Representatives. According to the official proclamation, Tuesday’s special session is strictly “to investigate and evaluate” whether Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s “conduct” regarding Joe Boever’s death “involved impeachable offenses.” 

The fate of impeachment will start Tuesday with the meeting of the House’s “Special Investigative Committee.” The eight-member committee — consisting of six Republican representatives and two Democrat representatives with House Speaker Spencer Gosch (R-Glenham) serving as a tie-breaking vote — will be the first group to determine whether impeachment should move forward to a full House vote. 

From there, a simple majority of 36 representatives in the House would be necessary to impeach Ravnsborg, at which time the state Constitution states there’d be “Suspension of duties between impeachment and acquittal.” 

There’s then, at least, a 20-day delay until a Senate trial could convict and permanently remove Ravnsborg from office. 

Senate President Pro Tem Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown) emphasized to KELOLAND News there’s no guarantee there’ll even be a Senate trial on Ravnsborg’s impeachment. 

“I don’t assume any results from the House,” Schoenbeck said. “If it does happen, we do have some individuals that would present the charges to the Senate.” 

Schoenbeck said the Senate is still figuring out who would be the “presiding officer” over the trial. He added Sen. David Wheeler (R-Huron) looked at four different states that have gone through impeachments and put together a “framework” for a possible trial. Schoenbeck said he doesn’t plan to look at Wheeler’s work until the House officially votes on impeachment. 

Schoenbeck said the rules of evidence and rules of civil procedure from court trials don’t apply in the “trials of impeachment.” 

“It’s a trial but it’s not like a trial like you see on T.V.,” Schoenbeck said. “It’s a political trial.” 

The Senate would need a two-thirds majority of 24 Senators to vote to convict and permanently remove Ravnsborg from office. If the Senate fails to convict, Ravnsborg could return to office.

Schoenbeck said “there’s no good time” for Senators to hold a trial, but said he was thinking it’d be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the first week of January before the official start of the 2022 Legislative Session starts on Tuesday, Jan. 11.  

Members of the Senate can listen into the House sessions on impeachment, Schoenbeck said. 

He summarized the impeachment process as “the House issues articles of impeachment and then the Senate decides if the person is impeached.” 

“That’s a political decision that each individual Senator would have to make,” said Schoenbeck, adding the focus of discussion would be “more of a decorum topic” in regard to impeachment. 

With Tuesday’s start of the special session, Schoenbeck said the Senate is “purely organization” and Senators won’t “get into any of the merits of this.” 

“The House is just going to be starting their process. I wouldn’t even try to speak to what they’re doing,” Schoenbeck said. 

He did want to emphasize how seriously the 35 members of the Senate have taken his or her role as a possible juror. 

“I’ve not heard a single Senator publicly express an opinion on the outcome of any trial if it happens,” Schoenbeck said. “I think that speaks pretty highly of the members of the state Senate. They’ve kept their power dry and said, ‘I’m going to wait, I’m going to listen.’”  

Ahead of Tuesday’s special session, a two-thirds majority, at least 24 of 35 members in the Senate and 47 of 70 members in the House, signed a petition in support of holding a special session on impeachment of Ravnsborg. 

Eight Republican Senators were not on a list of names that supported the special session. Gosch has not released the names of representatives who supported the special session. 

Impeachment was first brought up during this past session, but lawmakers wanted to wait for the court system to wrap up first. In August, Ravnsborg pleaded “no contest” to two misdemeanor charges and the state dropped a careless driving charge. Ravnsborg had to pay fines and court costs, but did not serve any jail time.

It has been more than a year since Ravnsborg’s car struck and killed Boever on the night of Sept. 12, 2020.

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