By the narrowest possible majority, the South Dakota House of Representatives today impeached Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for crimes causing the death of Joseph Boever and for malfeasance in office following the death of Joseph Boever. The motion to adopt the two articles of impeachment in House Resolution 7002 required a simple majority vote; the final vote was 36 to 31, making Jason Ravnsborg the first South Dakota official ever impeached.
31 House Republicans voted against impeachment. Three more—Scott Odenbach, Taffy Howard, and Marli Wiese—chose not to vote. Only 28 Republicans voted to impeach. They were joined by all eight House Democrats, thus constituting a bare majority of 36 in favor of Jason Ravnsborg’s standing trial in the Senate.
None of the Representatives who voted against impeachment dared to enunciate their reasons in floor speeches today. Seven Representatives rose to speak in favor of impeachment. You can watch their speeches on the SDPB video:
- Rep. Will Mortenson (R-24/Pierre), who filed the articles of impeachment and explained the first article, Ravnsborg’s crimes.
- Rep. Ryan Cwach (D-18/Yankton), who explained the second article, Ravnsborg’s malfeasance in office, in terms similar to those he laid out in his April 1 public statement on why he voted to recommend impeachment in committee.
- Rep. Mary Fitzgerald (R-31/Spearfish), who said Ravnsborg’s actions “have affected the public’s trust in the justice system” and created the impression that those in power in South Dakota get special treatment. Sounding somewhat agitated, Fitzgerald said Ravnsborg had abused his power “countless times” and failed to support “the thin blue line.”
- Rep. Tim Goodwin (R-30/Sheridan Lake), who requested the Department of Public Safety’s briefing on the Ravnsborg investigation last week. Despite a largely rambling and occasionally illogial speech, Goodwin did fire off one clever response to Ravnsborg’s surprise last-ditch appeal to legislators last night. Ravnsborg claimed that he wished he would have had the opportunity to argue his criminal charges in front of a jury. Goodwin says impeachment will give Ravnsborg that opportunity to argue his case in front of a jury—in this case, a jury of 35 Senators.
- Rep. Nancy York (R-5/Watertown), who said she was casting her last vote as a member of the House on this sad day in support of impeachment to shine sunlight on Ravnsborg’s case.
- Rep. Oren Lesmeister (D-28A/Parade), who said, contrary to Ravnsborg’s claim inthat Joe Boever’s widow told him this morning that Ravnsborg has never apologized directly to her.
- Rep. Linda Duba (D-15/Sioux Falls), who said that Ravnsborg’s claim to “respect the process” rings hollow when he declined to testify under oath to the impeachment committee and instead surprised legislators with his hasty, error-filled eleventh-hour letter. Echoing my critique this morning, Duba said she found it “shocking” that Ravnsborg concluded his appeal with the statement that Joseph Boever “changed my life forever.” “You took Joe Boever’s life,” Duba responded. “That’s what we’re about today, and that’s what we need to think about when we push the button.”
Per Article 16 Section 5 of the South Dakota Constitution, Ravnsborg is suspended from exercising the duties of attorney general until and unless the Senate acquits him of both impeachment charges. As of early this afternoon, the Attorney General’s office said Ravnsborg had physically left the office. Chief Deputy Attorney General Charles McGuigan is taking over the Attorney General’s duties for now.
Article 16 Section 7 requires the Senate to wait at least 20 days before starting the trial, but Senate President Pro-Tempore Lee Schoenbeck says they may not get around to trying Ravnsborg until a couple days after the June 7 primary. A trial at that date would take place just two weeks before the Republican convention, at which Ravnsborg has been planning to seek renomination for Attorney General
Among the unknowns in this unprecedented legal ground is whether Jason Ravnsborg continues to collect his state paycheck while suspended and waiting for his Senate trial:
It remained unclear among legislative leaders last weekend whether Ravnsborg would receive pay during his suspension. His annual salary is $121,449.51. Chief deputy McGuigan’s annual salary is $146,540.97. Said Bormann, “I do not have an answer on that. Charlie and I were discussing it as well and while Article XVI of the Constitution spells out the suspension, it is silent as to compensation” [Bob Mercer, “What’s Next in Ravnsborg Saga?” KELO-TV, 2022.04.12].
The South Dakota State Employee Handbook lists suspension without pay as one possible discipline for state employees. That handbook may not even apply to elected positions, but if state workers can be suspended without pay, one would think elected employees could, too. Right now Ravnsborg has zero duties for the state; he should get zero pay. At the very least, he should have to burn up any paid leave he has.
But whether we deny Ravnsborg his $12.1K a month while he waits for the Senate trial is perhaps a minor detail as we wait to see what final justice, if any, the Senate is willing to exact. The House only needed a simple majority to impeach; the Senate must muster a two-thirds vote, 24 members saying aye, to permanently remove Ravnsborg from office for breaking the law, killing a man, and lying about it.
The House barely reached the majority necessary to impeach; if a majority of Senate Republicans follow the majority of their House colleagues in defending Ravnsborg from accountability, the three Senate Democrats cannot provide enough votes, as their House counterparts did, to reach the threshold necessary to convict.
However, Senate Republicans differ in temperament from House Republicans. Where House Republicans this year have feuded with Governor Kristi Noem to the extent that some have been willing to cast impeachment more as a political attack by the Governor than as a grave constitutional process to check the crimes and malfeasance of the Attorney General, Senate Republicans have been less inclined to pick fights with the Governor. Senate Republicans may thus be more inclined to judge the impeachment trial on its merits, without getting tangled in any feud with the Second Floor. At the very least, reaching a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict Jason Ravnsborg may be as within reach as reaching a simple majority in the House today to impeach Jason Ravnsborg.
Stay tuned for more history.