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Impeachment Expert Garber Flops in Defense of Ravnsborg

Jason Ravnsborg hired Connecticut lawyer and Tulane adjunct law professor Ross Garber, who has made a gig for himself as an impeachment defense expert, to come all the way to South Dakota to make opening and closing statements at his impeachment trial before the South Dakota Senate yesterday. In largely academic remarks that failed to touch on the specifics of the criminal actions and malfeasance in office that led the House to impeach Ravnsborg and the Senate to convict, remove, and disqualify Ravnsborg from public office, Garber told Senators that “It will be very hard to explain a conviction” to his law students.

Hey, law students! The South Dakota Senate removed the Attorney General from office for killing a man and lying about it. If Professor Garber will have a hard time explaining that, he must as bad of a teacher as he was yesterday a lawyer.

The arguments for impeachment and conviction, made yesterday by prosecuting attorneys Alexis Tracy and Mark Vargo, were straightforward and specific. The prosecution grounded its arguments in things Jason Ravnsborg said and did, in the plain and uncontested crime scene evidence and cell phone data analyzed and presented by law enforcement officers from South Dakota and North Dakota. The arguments against conviction from Garber, in both his opening and closing statements, were largely theoretical and historical. See KELO’s video of Garber’s opening statement here:

Garber referred to impeachment as conceived by the drafters of our federal Constitution and impeachments in other states, but he said little about the specifics of Ravnsborg’s case and little about the specifics of South Dakota’s constitutional provisions for impeachment. Garber didn’t come up with any new arguments for his closing statement. After sitting silently through about three hours of prosecution witness testimony and cross-examination and about 30 minutes of questions from Senators, which never touched on the issues Garber raised in his opening remarks, Garber delivered more apparently prepared remarks, without any substantive response to the evidence or arguments presented. In his opening and closing statements, Garber simply dumped his legal framework into the record without showing how that frame fit around the facts of this case presented yesterday in the South Dakota Senate Chamber.

Jason, seriously: at what point did you think it was a good idea to hinge half of your defense on having an out-of-state lawyer come read two speeches to South Dakota Senators and tell them to ignore the facts and vote on law-school-egghead stuff?

Garber’s central argument in opening and closing seemed to be that the Founders (and he spoke only of the nation’s Founders, not the dusty homesteaders and Republic-builders who drafted the South Dakota Constitution in 1889) intended to create “co-equal” branches of government which could never dominate other branches. Garber ignored the fact that this hallowed co-equality hinges on checks and balances, the ability of one branch to intervene when another branch or elements of another branch miscarry their duty. Garber contended that the Legislative Branch should lightly overturn the will of the voters expressed in their choice of Executive Branch leaders. But the Founders, in Philadelphia 1787 and Sioux Falls 1889, recognized that members of the Executive Branch could commit acts sufficiently harmful to the Republic that the Republic could not wait until the next election to remove those malefactors. Thus, impeachment, a sword the elected representatives of the people could hold over the heads of the elected executives of the people to remind them they didn’t have carte blanche until the next election to lie, connive, and run guys over on the shoulder of Highway 14. Far from a violation of branch coequality, impeachment is an expression, an affirmation of the idea that no branch of government may try to pull one over on the other branches or on the people.

Gee, Professor Garber, I’m not having trouble explaining why impeachment is cool in general and in the specific case of killer and liar Jason Ravnsborg, and I haven’t had breakfast yet. Maybe when you teach your next impeachment class at Tulane, you should invite me to be guest speaker.

10 Comments

  1. grudznick 2022-06-22

    Mr. H is indeed righter-than-right. Out-of-state meddlers are bad, they are very bad.

  2. Nick Nemec 2022-06-22

    There was a strong undercurrent in the arguments that since no one in South Dakota history and very few in US history have been removed from office through the impeachment process we shouldn’t do it. This is akin to saying “In many years of driving I’ve never had a flat tire, therefore I am not going to stop and change this flat out with the spare tire in the trunk. I’ll just keep driving on the rim, it will be OK.”

  3. Bob Newland 2022-06-22

    Grudznutz had a brief shining moment of true humor a coupla days ago. I knew it wouldn’t last.

    If Garber had any effect yesterday, it was to ensure a conviction. Just because no elected official has previously been removed subsequent to impeachment is not the same as saying none should have been.

    I have Brock G. In mind as one example.

  4. P. Aitch 2022-06-22

    In the age of Trump, who told 30,543 lies and got away with it, your AG was swept up in the “conservative culture of lying”. That was the only valid defense to his crime. His car accident alone would not have impeached him. Had he “come clean” and expressed that “Trump made me do it.” he might have survived.

  5. All Mammal 2022-06-22

    I wonder why no other cases of convicted vehicular homicide where the driver is sitting in prison were ever brought up. Especially the sad current charge of homicide against Jesse Lee Pullen of Deadwood for the accidental death of his 9 year old son. Albeit, his son wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. The father almost died and as he is recovering, 9 months after the accident, guilt and despair eating him alive, homicide charges slapped on him with up to 15 years in prison. https://kbhbradio.com/news/man-charged-with-vehicular-homicide-in-death-of-son-pleads-not-guilty
    I found half a dozen sad stories online of ordinary citizens sitting in jail cells for causing the injury of someone else by accident, while Ravnsborg dozes off at his impeachment trial and gets to drive off into the sunset, while skimming through DFP articles. Glad they found the man malfeasant.

  6. Donald Pay 2022-06-22

    In most of South Dakota history, the people could have gotten rid of Ravnesborg through election. Executive positions had two year terms, so elections took care of most of the incompetent liars like Ravnesborg with reasonable dispatch. The longer the term, the more need for things like the recall and impeachment.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-06-22

    Nick’s point about Garber’s rarity argument gets me thinking: from a debate perspective, “impeachment should be rare” couldn’t be a voting issue in yesterday’s trial. First of all, as Nick notes, it’s a fallacy: the fact that something is rare and should be rare does not in itself mean we should not do that thing when the need arises. The rarity of flat tires does not change the fact of Nick’s flat tire right now.

    Secondly, the rarity argument presumes some threshold: “rare” must mean we do it only once in some shade of blue moon. Garber was making his rarity argument to a state that has already accepted that argument. We’ve gone 133 years without using impeaching anybody, so we’re due, even if we accept the rarity standard!

    Like so much else of what Garber said, his rarity argument ignored the facts of this case, in this state, with this particular politician, who himself dragged us into the rare situation (Dr. Card on SDPB this noon called it an “alternate reality”) where an elected official who commits such a grave crime refuses to resign and spare his party the scandal. Senator Schoenbeck himself said this trial should not have happened, because Ravnsborg should have expressed his contrition and resigned a long time ago. Ravnsborg put us in this rare situation; the Senate responded with a proper and rarely applied resolution.

  8. Arlo Blundt 2022-06-22

    Garber’s historical argument that the Founders (even in South Dakota) were cautious about overturning the will of the voters and impeaching or taking criminal action against Constitutional Officers and the Governor is traditional in our state. Take the case of “Wandering Willie” Taylor, a banker from Athol, South Dakota, who, in the closing days of his term as State Treasurer absconded with the total state treasury (about 400,000 bucks, though nobody but Willie knew the amount) and took off for Panama. As allowed by the Constitution, Willie had sole responsibility for the state funds which he had deposited in his three banks in the Redfield area. He was bonded, to protect the state from loss by four prominent Republicans, including Governor Mellette, who were responsible to reimburse the State for the loss.

    Willie had disappeared. He was reported to be living, high on the hog, in Panama (a province of Columbia), Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico. He probably visited them all and may have wandered as far south as Chile. None of these countries had extradition treaties.

    Meanwhile, back in South Dakota, State Government was stone broke. Mellette’s term had ended. The Legislature, Governor Bryne, and the newspapers were insisting that the bondsmen pay off and reimburse the treasury. All but Mellette welshed on the bond. (Mellette went bankrupt paying his share). Three prominent “stalwart Republicans (members of the Sioux Falls Ring) hired Chicago lawyers and fought like wildcats in the courts…they refused to pay a cent.The Panic of 1993 had struck, a country wide depression had closed most of the banks in South Dakota, settlers with mortgages were losing their farms. Dark days descended on the new state.

    Then, out of the blue, Wandering Willie, through his Chicago lawyer announced that he would return and was willing to return a portion of the lost cash…he wanted to negotiate and didn’t want to do any hard time. He didn’t like the food in Central America and the whiskey was rot gut. The Republican bondsmen jumped at the offer. They were willing to pay small amounts on their bond and would match a portion of what Willie returned. Willie was vague about how much money he had left and would negotiate an amount dependent on the lifting of any civil or legal liability he might have earned. And no prison sentence.

    Willie returned and spent a few days held in jail until he bailed himself out. Impeachment was out of the question as he had left office though the Legislature could have tried to impeach him and invoke the penalty that he could no longer hold any South Dakota office. They differed to the courts. The three Republican bondsmen negotiated paying a small portion of the missing money back to the state. Willie kicked in somewhere between 50 and 100,000 dollars. Governor Mellette sold off all his property in Watertown to pay his portion of the bond and moved to Kansas, bankrupt. Governor Byrne activated the National Guard and had them escort all state deposits in the state banks that had not gone bankrupt, under armed guard, to Pierre to be counted, one dollar bill at a time. It amounted to around $40,000. It was estimated that, maybe, a fourth of the missing money had returned.

    Wandering Willie Taylor was released and disappeared into the mists of time. He was rumored to have taken a Grand Tour of Europe.

  9. Arlo Blundt 2022-06-22

    Garber’s historical argument that the Founders (even in South Dakota) were cautious about overturning the will of the voters and impeaching or taking criminal action against Constitutional Officers and the Governor is traditional in our state. Take the case of “Wandering Willie” Taylor, a banker from Athol, South Dakota, who, in the closing days of his term as State Treasurer absconded with the total state treasury (about 400,000 bucks, though nobody but Willie knew the amount) and took off for Panama. As allowed by the Constitution, Willie had sole responsibility for the state funds which he had deposited in his three banks in the Redfield area. He was bonded, to protect the state from loss by four prominent Republicans, including Governor Mellette, who were responsible to reimburse the State for the loss.

    Willie had disappeared. He was reported to be living, high on the hog, in Panama (a province of Columbia), Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico. He probably visited them all and may have wandered as far south as Chile. None of these countries had extradition treaties.

    Meanwhile, back in South Dakota, State Government was stone broke. Mellette’s term had ended. The Legislature, Governor Bryne, and the newspapers were insisting that the bondsmen pay off and reimburse the treasury. All but Mellette welshed on the bond. (Mellette went bankrupt paying his share). Three prominent “stalwart Republicans (members of the Sioux Falls Ring) hired Chicago lawyers and fought like wildcats in the courts…they refused to pay a cent.The Panic of 1993 had struck, a country wide depression had closed most of the banks in South Dakota, settlers with mortgages were losing their farms. Dark days descended on the new state.

    Then, out of the blue, Wandering Willie, through his Chicago lawyer, announced that he would return and was willing to return a portion of the lost cash…he wanted to negotiate and didn’t want to do any hard time. He didn’t like the food in Central America and the whiskey was rot gut. The Republican bondsmen jumped at the offer. They were willing to pay small amounts on their bond and would match a portion of what Willie returned. Willie was vague about how much money he had left and would negotiate an amount dependent on the lifting of any civil or legal liability he might have earned. And no prison sentence.

    Willie returned and spent a few days held in jail until he bailed himself out. Impeachment was out of the question as he had left office though the Legislature could have tried to impeach him and invoke the penalty that he could no longer hold any South Dakota office. They differed to the courts. The three Republican bondsmen negotiated paying a small portion of the missing money back to the state. Willie kicked in somewhere between 50 and 100,000 dollars. Governor Mellette sold off all his property in Watertown to pay his portion of the bond and moved to Kansas, bankrupt. Governor Byrne activated the National Guard and had them escort all state deposits in the state banks that had not gone bankrupt, under armed guard, to Pierre to be counted, one dollar bill at a time. It amounted to around $40,000. It was estimated that, maybe, a fourth of the missing money had returned.

    Wandering Willie Taylor was released and disappeared into the mists of time. He was rumored to have taken a Grand Tour of Europe.

  10. Arlo Blundt 2022-06-23

    I made some historical errors in the stoy above regarding Wandering Willie. It is a convoluted tale.

    The total amount Willie was accused of stealing was 367,000
    After three years of court trials Willie paid the state less than 100,000 in cash and property.
    His bondsmen which included two brothers in law had received from Taylor a number of deeds to land and other investments including a gold mine in Cripple Creek Colorado, as well as cash, in an effort to keep this property out of the settlement.
    After 4 years of legal wrangling, the State recovered about 237.000
    After many court appearances, 4 years worth of court fights, Willie was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which he apparently served.
    I was dead wrong in my Governor Bryne notation. Mellete was succeeded by Governor Sheldon. And it was his successor, Governor Lee, at the conclusion of all the court cases, who ordered that all state funds be brought to Pierre and counted. The South Dakota Historical Digest has an excellent article on Wandering Willie, printed in 1886. At my age I should not rely on my memory.

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