SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s first Senate impeachment trial will be underway in one week.
Thirty-five Senators will gather in Pierre and serve as jurors deciding whether to convict Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg on two articles of impeachment during a two-day trial starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, June 21.
According to rules established by the Senate, after the case for and against impeachment is presented, Senators will take a vote on each article of impeachment. A two-thirds majority of 24 Senators is required to convict Ravnsborg and remove him from office.
If 24 Senators decide to convict him on either of the two counts, a third vote will take place to decide whether Ravnsborg will “shall be disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the state.”
If 24 Senators don’t vote for conviction on either of the two counts, Ravnsborg will be granted a “judgment of acquittal.”
How did we get here?
On September 12, 2020, Ravnsborg was driving his private car back to Pierre from a Republican political event in Redfield when he struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever of Highmore. Boever was walking along the north shoulder of US 14, facing traffic, when Ravnsborg’s car hit him.
In August 2021, nearly a year after the crash and following a lengthy investigation, Ravnsborg had his defense attorney plead no-contest to an illegal lane change for driving on the shoulder and to illegal use of an electronic device while operating a motor vehicle. A judge ordered Ravnsborg to pay $1,000 for the two misdemeanor counts and more than $3,000 to Hyde County for costs associated with the investigation.
In November 2021, the South Dakota Legislature opened a special session on the possible impeachment of Ravnsborg and a special committee was formed to investigate whether Ravnsborg committed impeachable offenses.
What will Senators be voting on?
The first impeachment count calls for Ravnsborg to be removed from office for causing the death of Boever, including the crime of an illegal lane change.
The second impeachment count calls for Ravnsborg to be removed from office because he allegedly misrepresented what had happened when he spoke to the 911 dispatcher after the crash and when he subsequently spoke to law enforcement investigators and the public.
Ravnsborg has said he’s not guilty for the two counts of impeachment.
Those are the two counts Senators will vote on for the official record. If the vote of 24 is reached, a third vote will be held to bar Ravnsborg from holding any office with the state again.
Who will be involved in the trial?
Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden will be the presiding officer for the trial and will issue any subpoenas in the name of the Senate.
The 35 Senators will be tasked with listening and hearing arguments for much of the process.
Arguing for impeachment will be Pennington County state’s attorney Mark Vargo and Clay County state’s attorney Alexis Tracy. Prosecutors plan to call eight witnesses to help make their case for impeachment. Many of the witnesses previously gave testimony to the House Select Committee on Investigation regarding the Ravnsborg criminal and crash investigation.
Three agents with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, two members with the South Dakota Highway Patrol, two retired agents from the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation and a crash specialist from Wyoming make up the eight witnesses.
Ravnsborg chose Sioux Falls lawyer Michael Butler to represent him during the trial. Butler is an attorney who defended former state Senator Dan Sutton, who was censured by the Senate for sleeping in the same bed as a male legislative page.
Butler did not file a witness list for the defense.
How long will it take?
When the trial starts Tuesday, prosecuting attorneys will have one hour for an opening statement presenting the case for impeachment followed by one hour opening statement from the respondent’s attorney to oppose impeachment.
Prosecutors will then have a total of four hours to present witness testimony, present exhibits and cross-examine witnesses. The same four hours will be given to the respondents.
Each party will have one hour of closing arguments.
That totals for a maximum of 12 hours of argument from both sides.
Rules state the trial can’t extend past 8 p.m. CT at night. Recess will be called and the trial can resume the next day.
What are Senators saying?
Since the possibility of impeachment was first brought up in February 2021 and members of the Senate were aware they could possibly become jurors, many have stayed silent regarding Ravnsborg.
Monday, June 13 was the deadline for Senators to submit questions for either party.
KELOLAND News has reached out to five Senators to see if any submitted questions. Any responses will be updated to this story.
Sen. Troy Heinert (D-Mission) said he didn’t submit any questions. He said Senators have been focused on following the constitution and the laws for the impeachment process.
“We listen to the evidence and make the decision that we feel is best for our district and for our state,” Heinert said.
Heinert also noted the large amount of investigation material available for Senators. The South Dakota Legislative Research Council website has 174 documents, photos, reports and videos listed for review.
“There’s a lot of information and it is time consuming,” Heinert said.
One lawmaker has already casted doubt on the fairness of the process. Former House speaker and Sioux Falls lawyer Steve Haugaard said he’d question the “integrity of some of those people” about the Senate impeachment trial. Haugaard, a Republican in District 10, voted against impeachment in the House.
Haugaard said his doubt on the procedure came from a leaked transcript of a secret meeting of Republican Senators held in April 2020.
Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown) declined to comment when asked about Haugaard’s comments on fairness of the trial by KELOLAND News.
Heinert said the Democrat’s caucus is always open.
“Everybody hears what we’re talking about,” Heinert said. “Nothing is handled in secret in our caucus.”