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After Greitens, Missouri Senate votes to limit impeachment

After Greitens, Missouri Senate votes to limit impeachment

March 28th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

Thomas Jefferson's statue graces the south side of the Missouri Capitol.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Missouri's state senators on Thursday endorsed the idea of changing the state Constitution and moving impeachment trials back to the Senate.

On identical 25-8 votes, the Senate passed both a proposed constitutional amendment and legislation that would go into effect if voters approved the amendment in a statewide election next year.

The measures now go to the House.

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, reminded reporters after Thursday's votes that he's been working on the change since he first came to the Legislature in 2003.

"When I was in the Missouri House, someone brought it to my attention that our impeachment process was different from anyone else's in the nation," he explained, "and that it had been changed in the 1945 Constitution.

"As I looked further into it, I was concerned about the corruption in the checks-and-balances that it imposed."

Until voters adopted the current Constitution in 1945, Missouri handled impeachments like the federal government and the other states — if the House brought charges, the Senate then decided whether that impeachment should result in a conviction and a loss of the office.

But the state Constitution was changed after then-State Treasurer Larry Brunk, a former state senator, was cleared in 1931 by his former colleagues of nine different charges accusing him of mishandling state money under his control, costing the state interest earnings, and of misconduct for entering into a conspiracy with two other men, to personally profit from the sale of a specific state bond.

The new Constitution created a hybrid form, where the House still voted on articles of impeachment, but the state Supreme Court in all cases — except for the governor or any Supreme Court judge — heard the trial of those impeachment charges.

Emery said Missouri's system changed the basic concept of impeachment that the nation's founders envisioned in 1789.

"It isn't a criminal process (or to) send anyone to jail," he said Thursday. "When you send this to the Supreme Court in Missouri, you have seven people making that decision (to convict).

"When you send it to the Senate, you have 34 people making that decision."

Emery said impeachment is intended to be "the Legislature's check against the executive branch and the judiciary branch — and to have the judiciary involved in a check of the judiciary, to me, was a pretty simple answer in terms of whether that was appropriate, or not."

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, was one of the senators voting against Emery's bills.

"I personally believe the courts were the right place to finalize the impeachment process," she explained. "We go through the House and then we go to the courts — I think that is a fair and reasonable way to hold one branch of government accountable."

Under the current state Constitution, the House can bring impeachment charges against "all elective executive officials of the state, and judges of the Supreme Court, courts of appeals and circuit courts for crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office."

Emery's proposal changes those categories to only corruption or crime "in office."

"I felt like 'in office' was what we would see if we looked back through any of Missouri's history of impeachment," he said.

"I don't think you will find, historically, a place where an elected official has been removed from office for something that didn't happen while they were in office."

Emery said the change — in defining what conduct could lead to impeachment — wasn't influenced by last year's consideration of impeachment charges against then-Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned from office.

A St. Louis grand jury charged Greitens with two separate crimes — of taking a photo of a woman without her permission while she was at least partly nude and of stealing email and donor lists from a charity he had helped found.

Neither of those cases went to trial, and the stealing charge was dropped in exchange for Greitens' resignation, in a deal worked out by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and Greitens' attorneys.

The House dropped its investigation when Greitens left office — since the only punishment for a conviction of impeachment charges is removal from the office.

Had the House voted for impeachment, the governor's trial would have been held by seven judges chosen by the state Senate.

Under Emery's amendment, the Senate would hear the case, with the Supreme Court's chief justice presiding.

But both of the alleged crimes in Greitens' case occurred before he was in office.

If the Constitution and statutes had included Emery's language last year, the House could not have approved impeachment charges because the alleged offenses didn't occur while Greitens was in office — and he could have continued to serve as governor even if he'd been convicted of one or both charges.

Senate Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said Thursday: "I don't think it's appropriate for us to deal in hypotheticals.

"I don't think there's anything in here that actually would have changed how the process played out with Gov. Greitens. And certainly, it was not a motivation for us to change the jurisdiction for where the impeachment process would have happened."

But Schupp said that change was another reason she voted against the idea.

"I also believe that lessening the timeframe that somebody is subject to impeachment," she explained, "(to) just for what happened in office, and not accounting for things that we learned about prior to that person's tenure in office, doesn't make any sense to me."

She hopes the House will reject Emery's bills, or that voters statewide will keep the current constitutional system.

Emery said during his work on the issue over the years, he's discovered most lawmakers and most citizens "didn't realize what Missouri's impeachment process was."

He said his effort gained steam when he found a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case that "determined, unanimously, that judges had no place in impeachment."

In that case, a federal judge in Mississippi was convicted and imprisoned for making false statements to a grand jury, then was impeached by the U.S. House and convicted by the Senate.

He sued, complaining a U.S. Senate committee, rather than the full Senate, heard the evidence in his impeachment trial, before the full Senate convicted him.

The federal courts all ruled that he was raising a "political question" that the courts couldn't consider.

In writing for the unanimous court, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote: "The word 'sole' in the (federal Constitution's) Impeachment Trial Clause indicates that the Senate was meant to have total authority over this issue" in federal impeachment cases.


This story was updated at 11 p.m. March 28, 2019, to include further details and change byline.