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Our Opinion: Missouri's system for impeachment doesn't need fixing

Our Opinion: Missouri's system for impeachment doesn't need fixing

March 22nd, 2019 by News Tribune in Opinion

When Missouri lawmakers return next week, one of the Senate's first actions should be to kill a bill they already have given their first-round approval.

The bill is state Sen. Ed Emery's proposal to return impeachment trials to the state Senate, instead of the Supreme Court.

But the current system clearly isn't broken — and there's no need to "fix" it just because what Missouri has is different from how the federal government, and the other states, handle the process.

A bit of background:

Until adoption of the 1945 Constitution, Missouri handled impeachments like all the other states — the House brought charges, and the Senate decided whether that impeachment should result in a conviction and a loss of office.

Then, in 1931, the House leveled nine charges against then-state Treasurer Larry Brunk, accusing him of mishandling money under his control, costing the state interest earnings, and of misconduct for entering into a conspiracy with two other men, to profit personally from the sale of a specific state bond.

Brunk was a state senator before becoming treasurer, and his former colleagues cleared him off all the charges. The most "guilty" votes he received was 19 on one of the charges and 18 on a different one — but the Constitution required a two-thirds vote, or 23 of the Senate's 34 members.

A decade later, the people writing the new Constitution changed the procedure.

Supporters of the federal system argue impeachment always is a political dispute, aimed at removing someone for office.

Missouri's 1945 Constitution left some of that — the House still must decide if impeachment articles are warranted, and that likely is a political debate. This occurred just a year ago, when lawmakers were discussing whether to impeach then-Gov. Eric Greitens. He eventually resigned before the House officially could debate the question.

Under the current constitutional language, the House only can vote for impeachment if it finds that the officeholder violated one or more of specific provisions: "All elective executive officials of the state, and judges of the supreme court, courts of appeals and circuit courts shall be liable to impeachment for crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office."

Since 1945, once the House decides impeachment, the state Supreme Court hears the case — forcing the prosecution of the impeachment charges to prove to the court how the person charged violated one of those constitutional benchmarks.

That reduces a purely political reason for undoing what the voters wanted when the official was elected.

Emery, R-Lamar, said his proposal "would make (impeachment) a much more rigorous process."

His proposed amendment also makes another serious change to the Constitution that also should be rejected: He would reduce the reasons for an impeachment charge only to "corruption or crime in office."

He said that "makes the lasso that you cast to pull in an impeachable offense a little smaller."

But state Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, who is an attorney and who served last year on the special House committee that investigated Greitens, told the Associated Press last week: "You could hypothetically get elected in November, rob a bank December 31st, get sworn in a week later — nothing anybody could do about it.

"It would not be grounds for impeaching him."

Missouri has had one impeachment of a state elected official since 1945 — then-Secretary of State Judi Moriarty, convicted of a misdemeanor crime for filing false paperwork so her son could be a state representative candidate, then impeached by the House and convicted by the Supreme Court.

Two judges who were threatened with impeachment chose to resign. Greitens resigned. Missouri's current system works. Emery's proposed amendment is unnecessary.

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