South Dakota Constitution says governor names replacement if a state elected office goes vacant

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Governor Kristi Noem hasn’t asked the South Dakota House of Representatives to start an impeachment proceeding against state Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, one of her top aides said Sunday night.

“This report is false. This has nothing to do with our office,” senior policy advisor Maggie Seidel told KELOLAND News.

Asked whether the governor had any knowledge whether House Republicans were discussing impeachment, Seidel replied, “I’d suggest you talk to the House members.”

House Speaker Spencer Gosch told KELOLAND News later Sunday night, “At this point in time, no conversations have been had.”

The car Ravnsborg was driving September 12, 2020, struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever of Highmore, as Boever walked in the dark on the shoulder of US 14 at the west edge of Highmore.

Hyde County deputy state’s attorney Emily Sovell announced Thursday that Ravnsborg was charged with three 2nd-class misdemeanors:

Operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile electronic device;

Lane driving; and

Careless driving.

Sovell said Thursday that Ravnsborg’s two cell phones were locked for more than a minute before the crash. That means they weren’t being used when Ravnsborg ran Boever over.

State Public Safety Secretary Craig Price said Ravnsborg was distracted at the time of the crash but didn’t explain how.

During the months since his death, the governor held several brief news conferences to provide updates about the state investigation and answered questions from reporters on several occasions.

After the prosecutor’s announcement Thursday, Noem posted a message on Twitter. It said, “My heart goes out to Joseph Boever’s family. I am not going to comment on the specifics of Ms. Sovell’s decision. I am directing the Department of Public Safety to share additional details of the investigation with the public within the next week.”

Ravnsborg has continued to work since the crash. He told several reporters at the state Capitol on December 14 that he wasn’t guilty of any crime.

The South Dakota Constitution specifically addresses impeachment in Article XVI. The governor and other state and judicial officers are subject to impeachment for “drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, or malfeasance or misdemeanor in office.” The steps are:

First, the House of Representatives has sole power of impeachment, with a concurrence from a majority of elected members. That would be 36 of the current 70 representatives.

There also is this provision: “No officer shall exercise the duties of his office after he shall have been impeached and before his acquittal.” In Ravnsborg’s instance, that would mean he would need to take a leave of absence.

Second, the Senate would then hold a trial, with a 2/3 majority needed to find the accused guilty. That would be 24 of the current 35 senators.

The impeachment article also says “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.”

Third, the governor would have the sole power to name the replacement. Article IV of the South Dakota Constitution lists many of the governor’s powers in section 3 and includes this sentence: “Whenever a vacancy occurs in any office and no provision is made by the Constitution or laws for filling such vacancy, the Governor shall have the power to fill such vacancy by appointment.”

The partisan politics in the Ravnsborg matter are complicated. Noem was South Dakota’s one member of the U.S. House of Representatives when she defeated then-Attorney General Marty Jackley in the 2018 primary election for the Republican nomination for governor. Jackley was barred by the state constitution from seeking election to a third consecutive term as attorney general in 2018.

South Dakota’s Republican and Democratic delegates choose their nominees for the other statewide elected offices of state government, including attorney general, at their statewide conventions. Ravnsborg won the Republican nomination in the summer of 2018 while former U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler took the Democratic nomination.

Three other candidates competed against Ravnsborg for the Republican nomination: then-state Senator Lance Russell, Lawrence County state’s attorney John Fitzgerald and chief deputy attorney general Charles McGuigan. McGuigan left the race before the convention when he found Ravnsborg had too many delegates committed. Ravnsborg kept McGuigan as chief deputy after defeating Seiler in the November 2018 election.

The South Dakota Democratic Party called Thursday evening for Ravnsborg to resign. Seiler currently is the Democrats’ state chairman.

Whether Ravnsborg is impeached and removed will be largely decided by Republican lawmakers. Republicans hold 62 House seats, including one by Representative Mary Fitzgerald, who is married to John Fitzgerald. Republicans control 32 Senate seats.

Nick Nemec, a farmer from the Highmore area, is a cousin of Joe Boever and was a Democrat House member. Nemec attended the news conference Thursday at the state Capitol with a temporary credential as a news reporter for the South Dakota Standard blog.

Nemec didn’t ask a question before the news conference ended. Afterward, he wrote a report for the Standard that raised additional questions about the crash and the investigation.

South Dakota went through a somewhat similar situation 18 years ago. A car driven by then-Congressman Bill Janklow failed to halt at a stop sign and Randy Scott was killed when the motorcycle he was driving crashed into Janklow’s Cadillac.

A Moody County convicted Janklow in the death. Janklow resigned from the House seat and the former four-term governor served 100 days in the Minnehaha County jail.

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