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South Dakota House Speaker plans delay in AG impeachment

March 3, 2021 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Top South Dakota lawmakers announced a proposal on Tuesday to delay evaluating whether the state’s attorney general should be impeached until the conclusion of the criminal case against him for hitting and killing a man with his car.

House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican, released a plan he will present to a House committee on Wednesday, arguing that a delay was necessary in light of a judge’s order last week that halted Gov. Kristi Noem and government officials from releasing evidence in the investigation. Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg — also a Republican — is facing three misdemeanor charges for striking and killing a man walking on the shoulder of a highway late on Sept. 12.

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Ravnsborg initially told authorities that he thought he had struck a deer or another large animal 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.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers had filed articles of impeachment against the state’s top law enforcement officer last week, just hours after Noem had called for Ravnsborg to resign. The Republican governor also made the extraordinary move of releasing videos of interviews Ravnsborg had with criminal investigators. But her administration was later forced to remove the videos by a judge in the county where the criminal case against Ravnsborg is proceeding.

Since an impeachment proceeding is unprecedented in the state, the House Speaker has been tasked with forming the process. Gosch said public proceedings would be difficult, given the judge’s order that state members could not release evidence, and he wanted to make sure any hearings were “fair and transparent.”

“It’s best that arguably these premature articles that were filed be held off until the judicial system is able to do its job,” he said.

Gosch’s proposal amounted to a step back from the impeachment proceedings after the governor and some lawmakers had used nearly every available means to get Ravnsborg to resign last week.

Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, who introduced the articles of impeachment, said in a statement, “I’m disappointed that we are not moving forward more quickly, but understand the desire for full transparency,” adding that he has not changed his mind that Ravnsborg breached the duties of the attorney general’s office.

Gosch said he would propose removing the articles of impeachment from the legislative resolution and replacing them with a statement saying that after Ravnsborg’s criminal trial, the House “may evaluate whether articles of impeachment ... are necessary and proceed accordingly.”

Both House Republican Leader, Kent Peterson, and Democratic Leader, Jamie Smith, said they agreed with the delay.

A hearing date for Ravnsborg’s criminal case has not been set.

Gosch said it would also require a special session of the Legislature to reconvene for impeachment, which would require support from two-thirds of both chambers. If the House decided to proceed with the impeachment, it would take a simple majority to advance the impeachment charges to the Senate. There, it would require two-thirds of senators to convict and remove him from office.

Noem would get to appoint a replacement if Ravnsborg leaves or is removed from office.