Thanks to the South Dakota Senate’s historic and just vote yesterday to convict, remove, and forever disqualify Jason Ravnsborg, the office of Attorney General is now vacant. Ravnsborg’s kakistocratic incompetence had left it vacant de facto since his inauguration, but the office is now vacant de jure. Governor Kristi Noem (who leaves her own office vacant most of the time, but that’s another issue) thus finally gets to appoint (per SD Const. Article 4 Section 3) an Attorney General to serve the remaining six months and change of the current term.
Whom should she pick?
A governor seeking the best lawyer in the state to serve as the top lawyer in the state would pick either Alexis Tracy or Mark Vargo. Tracy and Vargo co-prosecuted the Senate impeachment trial. They pounded Ravnsborg’s actions and integrity with their opening and closing statements yesterday. More importantly, they built a case that convinced Republican Senators to remove a Republican Attorney General. I say anyone who can convince South Dakota Republicans to do the right thing deserves a medal, not to mention an appointment to higher office.
But I hate to deprive Clay and Pennington counties of their excellent state’s attorneys. Having spent two months preparing for this historic and difficult trial, Tracy and Vargo probably want to just get back to their respective courthouses and catch up on the backlog of county cases requiring their attention, not bail completely from their county offices and spend six more months in Pierre managing the Attorney General’s office through a sudden and surely complicated clean-up period. Tracy and Vargo may be too smart and too dedicated to honest lawyering to entangle themselves further in state government politics. And even though I am entirely confident that neither Tracy nor Vargo took on the politically fraught task of prosecuting Jason Ravnsborg to secure higher office (there are far less politically fraught ways to curry favor in the party than impeaching one of the party’s own members), I suspect their own ethical sense would prevent them from accepting an appointment that could sully the justice of this impeachment with an appearance of self-interest—hey, you get Jason Ravnsborg fired, then you take his job? That’s not cool!
With those two top prosecutors off the table, where else can the Governor turn for an effective top state prosecutor? The practical choice is the last man who did the job, Marty Jackley. Governor Noem and most of South Dakota’s law enforcement community have already said Jackley should do the job again. Jackley is probably better prepared than anyone else in South Dakota to walk into the office today, know where things are, know where things should be, and which thumb-twiddling Ravnsborg flunkies need to be fired right now.
But Noem has faced political blowback (and Ravnsborg’s defense team wanly waved this red flag yesterday) for the perception that she was pushing impeachment just so she could rush her own pick for Attorney General into place and insulate herself from corruption investigations. Noem’s resounding ker-whalloping of Steve Haugaard in the primary suggests she doesn’t have much to worry about from the political malcontents on her side of the aisle peddling that line, and she shouldn’t have to lift too many fingers, let alone flunkies from her state staff, to use her millions in out-of-state money to beat Web-witty Democratic candidate Jamie Smith in November. But if Noem wants to completely tamp down any lingering angst over her alleged politicization of impeachment and the Attorney General’s office, she could appoint the next-most ready man to do the job of Attorney General in South Dakota: Randy Seiler.
Like Jackley, Seiler was a U.S. Attorney, the chief federal prosecutor in South Dakota, managing a whole team of lawyers and multiple government prosecutions. Seiler ran for Attorney General in 2018 against Ravnsborg. Seiler is now chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Seiler is willing to run for Attorney General again, but he has said he will not run against Marty Jackley.
By appointing Seiler, a Democrat, today to be Attorney General for the remainder of Ravnsborg’s vacated term, Noem would achieve multiple objectives:
- She would declare to her party faithful that she is not attempting to put her thumb on their nominating decision this weekend between Marty Jackley and Ravnsborg crony David Natvig (whose days in South Dakota politics, like anyone else saddled with the tag of Ravnsborg Man, are numbered).
- She would defuse any argument opponents might make that she wanted a political crony in the AG’s office to prevent investigations into her own corruption.
- She would appoint a Democrat without giving a Democratic nominee an incumbency leg up, because the Democratic nominee will not be Seiler (unless Seiler breaks his word, which would not be healthy politically).
- She would disarray the Democratic Party again, pulling its chairman out of his partisan gig just as the party heads into the general election.
- She would score points with casual independent voters, who would see her playing bipartisanship.
- And if we’d like to really reach: Noem could play to Seiler’s sense of professional ethics and civic duty by charging him with serving as an effective interim attorney general who will focus on cleaning up the mess left by Ravnsborg’s incompetence and absence from office and preparing the office for a transition back to effective, efficient operations. Seiler would have a hard time saying no to the opportunity to serve the public in that important interim role, and he’d likely be so busy navigating the challenges of that clean-up and transition that he wouldn’t have time to go digging for skeletons in Kristi’s Second Floor closets… so by appointing a civic-minded Democrat who’s not running for election and who will only hold the post for six months, Noem might actually better protect herself from investigation than she would be appointing a Republican who might stay in the office for another four years and get ideas about using that position as leverage against Noem in some future election.
I know there’s not much chance Noem will call this trick play and give Randy Seiler a job. But Seiler would do a good job as interim Attorney General, and she would give herself a chance to say that, as we recover from the disruption Jason Ravnsborg caused to law enforcement to this great state, she’s stepping back to avoid any appearance of politicizing the office and is letting her party’s delegates and the voters of South Dakota pick their own Attorney General in the November election.