The primary news in Jonathan Ellis’s commentary on the historic Senate impeachment trial of killer Jason Ravnsborg was that Ravnsborg’s defense team thought before the trial that it had the votes to secure acquittal. That fact indicates that Senate Republicans had not pre-arranged any outcome, that the trial mattered, and that prosecutors Alexis Tracy and Mark Vargo made a historic difference by persuading a few Senators to change their minds and convict, remove, and forever disqualify Ravnsborg.
Ellis buried that salient political and historical fact at the bottom of his essay. As commenter Jake pointed out, Ellis seemed to focus more on portraying the impeachment trial not simply as unusual but fantastically weird and inappropriate:
On Tuesday, South Dakota’s political world entered an alternate reality.
A parallel universe. An upside down world. Terra incognita.
The Senate trial of former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and the subsequent votes to remove him from office, and bar him from ever running for political office in South Dakota, was an event conjured from the imaginative world of “What if?” rather than reality.
Ross Garber, the constitutional law expert who testified on behalf of Ravnsborg, tried to impress upon senators just how far afield they were.
Only a handful of governors had ever been impeached, and to his knowledge, no attorney general in the modern era had been impeached and removed from office.
“This is incredibly rare what’s being contemplated here,” said Garber, a Tulane Law School professor and an expert on impeachment.
Rare, indeed [Jonathan Ellis, “19 Months of Political Brutality Ends with Jason Ravnsborg’s Ouster,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 2022.06.27].
A historic trial produces a historic outcome, and Ellis opens his commentary with the least relevant, logical, or influential argument offered that day, the weak political philosophizing of a Connecticut lawyer that got zero traction with Senators. (Even Senator R. Blake Curd’s lifeline suggestion to the defense that Ravnsborg might have dissociative amnesia had more legs than Garber’s fallacious generalities.) He speaks of the trial as some imaginative conjuring not grounded in reality.
In some ways, his line of thinking was vindicated when prosecutors declined to file felony charges against him during the criminal investigation. Ravnsborg went on to plead guilty to two class-2 misdemeanors. Again, from his perspective, why should he resign over two misdemeanors? [Ellis, 2022.06.27]
…and springboards from that vindication to assert that the impeachment trial was driven by Republican politics, not the evidence that Republican Ravnsborg killed a man, lied about it, and abused his office to get out of trouble:
By then, his presence in office had become a political divide. Gov. Kristi Noem, sensing an opportunity to install a loyalist, had been publicly calling for Ravnsborg to step down.
…In the lead up to the trial, Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck made it known the trial would go on, even if Ravnsborg were to resign. Schoenbeck wanted to ensure Ravnsborg was stripped of his ability to run for future political office.
…All of this left the attorney general with no incentive but to go forward with the trial [Ellis, 2022.06.27].
Now it’s Ellis doing the conjuring, seemingly aping Ravnsborg in claiming that impeachment was everybody else’s fault but Ravnsborg’s. Senator Schoenbeck himself said on the floor of the Senate, in front of Ravnsborg and Ellis and everyone else, “Why we’re even having this trial is beyond me… there should have been a resignation a long time ago, there should have been contrition that hasn’t happened, and there should be impeachment.” Jason Ravnsborg could have averted the impeachment trial at any point by doing the right thing and resigning. To suggest the trial was an inappropriate action caused by other leaders who failed to give Jason Ravnsborg any “incentive” only affirms the (logical, defensible) thesis that Jason Ravnsborg has the stunted moral development of a poorly raised five year old who won’t do anything unless you give him a cookie. Why did Jason Ravnsborg need any incentive to do the right thing, accept responsibility for his deadly and corrupt actions, and leave office?
The only grave error in the Senate impeachment trial was that the Senate didn’t take away Jason Ravnsborg’s driver’s license… and that’s the fault of the framers of Article 16 Section 3, not the Senators who voted to issue the stiffest punishment allowed by the South Dakota Constitution.
The Senate impeachment trial was no upside-down political circus. The Senate impeachment trial did not take Senators “far afield” from their legitimate duties. The Senate impeachment trial was proper, necessary, and important. It gave prosecutors—not Jason’s law school chum committed to helping him get off, but prosecutors committed to arguing the people’s side of the case—the chance to lay out for the Senate and the public the case that Jason Ravnsborg is a habitually bad driver and self-serving abuser of political office. It gave Senators a chance to put themselves on the record in weighing the historic question of whether this Attorney General’s behavior disqualified him from office. And for all but two Senators in the chamber, the trial resolved that question in the affirmative.
The Senate impeachment trial did necessary justice. To portray this trial otherwise requires conjuring an imaginative alternative reality that misinforms the public, present and future.