South Dakota House dodges impeachment, cites pending litigation

Published: Mar. 5, 2021 at 9:37 AM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - South Dakota legislators want no part in the impeachment of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for now.

Wednesday morning, the House State Affairs committee voted unanimously on House Speaker Spencer Gosch’s (R-Glenham) amendment that would delay impeachment until “after a conviction, plea of guilty 16 or nolo contendere, or acquittal in case number 34MAG21-0001, State v. Jason Ravnsborg.”

This means that it is unlikely legislators would impeach Ravnsborg within the next few months.

Gosch argued that Judge John Brown’s ruling affected their ability to move forward.

“The biggest factor is going to be the judges court order, and it requesting members of state government stop releasing information,” Gosch said. “As you know, most of our proceedings are done in a public nature.”

In his ruling, Judge Brown of the sixth circuit “orders that the Department of Public Safety, law enforcement, or any member of state government, including Governor Kristi Noem, is precluded from producing any further criminal reports.”

University of South Dakota political science professor Michael Card questions the merit of stopping an impeachment trial because of a court ruling, arguing that impeachment is a political issue, not a legal one.

“I can sort of see how Judge Brown would argue and see the evidence presented to him as making it very difficult for Attorney General Ravnsborg to get a fair trial,” Card said. “(But) The legislature clearly has the authority to conduct an impeachment.”

Judge Brown did not respond to requests for comment.

In the South Dakota Constitution, grounds for impeachment include, “drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, or malfeasance or misdemeanor in office.”

Regardless, Card argues that the release of over three hours of Ravnsborg testimony ultimately led to the halt in the impeachment process for now.

“It is interesting that the Governor and the Department of Public Safety released the videos. It is hard to imagine that with video evidence such as this, in the defendants own words, wouldn’t influence both the trial and the offering of impeachment.”

With the legislative session nearing a close, state lawmakers and Governor Kristi Noem differ on whether or not calling a special session would be necessary to proceed with an impeachment trial. In their weekly press conferences Thursday, Majority Leader State Rep. Kent Peterson (R-Salem) said that it likely would take a special session to proceed with impeachment. Governor Noem said it would not take a special session, and further, that she would not be willing to call legislators back for one on the matter of impeachment.

The state constitution is much more clear on the matter, stating that legislators can work outside of their regularly scheduled forty legislative days for the sake of impeachment, meaning that calling a special session would not appear to be necessary.

The impeachment resolution still needs approval of the full House, but given its unanimous approval in committee, that appears likely to happen sometime early next week.

Ravnsborg is scheduled for his first court appearance March 12th, the day after the 2021 state legislative session ends.

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