PIERRE, S.D. (AP) – South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Thursday offered her opinion that the Legislature could easily convene to consider impeaching the state’s attorney general for his role in a fatal car crash, putting her at odds with the Republican lawmaker overseeing the proceedings.
As lawmakers consider a process that is unprecedented in the state, the procedural conflict touches on rules in the state constitution that are unclear, but will bear on whether Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg will even have to face an impeachment inquiry as he seeks to hold on to his job.
Republican House Speaker Spencer Gosch, who led the move to postpone considering impeachment, has asserted that the Legislature would need support from two-thirds of both chambers to convene outside the regularly scheduled legislative session. That would make it more difficult for the Legislature to even consider impeaching the Republican attorney general.
But Noem says legislative leaders could simply call lawmakers back to Pierre.
“I believe they don’t need a special session for impeachment,” the governor said at a news conference.
The state’s top law enforcement officer is facing three misdemeanor charges for striking and killing a man walking on the shoulder of a highway late on Sept. 12. Ravnsborg initially told authorities that he thought he had struck a deer and said he searched the unlit area with a cellphone flashlight. He said he didn’t realize he had killed a man until the next day when he returned to the accident scene.
Those seeking to remove Ravnsborg from office suffered a setback Wednesday when a House committee moved to put off considering whether he should be impeached until the conclusion of his criminal case. An initial hearing date in the criminal case has been set for March 12 – meaning that it may not conclude until after the final scheduled day of the legislative session on March 29.
At the news conference, Noem declined to discuss the impeachment proceedings further. But she kept up her calls for the attorney general to resign, saying that was “the best thing that could happen” in the situation.
Last week, she put maximum pressure on him to step down: Publicly calling for his resignation and releasing videos of his interviews with criminal investigators the same day that lawmakers unveiled articles of impeachment. But a judge’s order halting Noem – or other government officials – from publishing the videos or other documents in the investigation has given lawmakers reason to halt impeachment proceedings.
Lawmakers have taken the judge’s order to mean they are under a gag order from even discussing the attorney general’s crash. Gosch has said he pushed the step back from considering impeachment to make sure the process would be “fair and transparent,” and that can happen only after the criminal case concludes.
If the Legislature reconvenes, the House would need a simple majority to advance the impeachment charges to the Senate. There, it would require two-thirds of senators to convict and remove the attorney general from office.
But the state constitution does not spell out impeachment proceedings and whether a special session – which requires the support of two-thirds of lawmakers from both chambers – is necessary. Noem could also call a special session, but said Thursday she would not do so.
“This is unprecedented because no one has ever been convicted of impeachment in South Dakota,” said Patrick Garry, an expert on the state constitution at the University of South Dakota Law School. “The constitution does not really lay out the procedural aspect.”
Garry suggested the state Supreme Court would be the ultimate authority in determining whether calling a special session is necessary. The governor would have to request an opinion from the high court for it to step in.
Noem‘s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry on whether she was considering that option.
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