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No, this isn't South Dakota's first impeachment process

This video is from SDPB's news program, South Dakota Focus.

The news is full of references this winter to the potential impeachment of South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

Many reports call it an unprecedented situation – the first time the Legislature has formally considered impeaching a public official.

As it turns out, this is at least the second time the South Dakota media has proclaimed a first-ever impeachment process.

The historical record indicates the first impeachment proceedings were 105 years ago in 1917. At the time, an Argus Leader newspaper headline described it as the “First Procedure of the Kind Ever Brought in South Dakota.”

Argus Leader

That impeachment process involved a Black Hills entrepreneur, a judge and allegations of corruption.

The entrepreneur was Frank Lockhart. He controlled a prime piece of Black Hills land where he wanted to build a power plant harnessing the waters of Rapid Creek. He filed a legal document called a plat at the local courthouse, asserting water rights with the property.

But Lockhart had competition. Another company wanted to build a power plant along the same stretch of Rapid Creek. And that rival company had an important investor: Circuit Court Judge Levi McGee.

According to Lockhart, Judge McGee used his influence to doctor Lockhart’s plat. The doctored plat made it appear McGee’s company had water rights before Lockhart.

Lockhart said the judge’s company used the forged document to raise a half-million dollars from investors on the strength of the water rights, while Lockhart was shut out.

That was according to Lockhart and a newspaper that published his story. A different newspaper friendly to Judge McGee dismissed the allegations, saying McGee had an “unsullied reputation for integrity and square dealing.”

Lockhart wrote his allegations in a sworn statement and delivered it to the Judiciary Committee of the state House of Representatives. He asked lawmakers to impeach the judge.

Committee members produced a majority report advising against impeachment, and a minority report advocating for impeachment.

The full House of Representatives sided with the judge, voting 74-23 against impeachment.

The Lockhart-McGee controversy illustrates a little-known fact about impeachment in South Dakota: It’s not just for politicians elected to statewide office. The state constitution says officers subject to impeachment by the Legislature include the governor, other state and judicial officers, justices of the peace, and police magistrates. That latter term is an antiquated reference to a type of low-level judge.

The current impeachment inquiry focuses on Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s conduct following a fatal crash in 2020. Ravnsborg was driving a car that struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever. The attorney general pleaded no-contest to a pair of misdemeanors in a criminal case stemming from the incident.

A committee of the House of Representatives is investigating the matter. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for later this month.

The committee may eventually send a report to the full House. If the House votes to impeach Ravnsborg, that would apparently be a first in state history.

The Senate would then conduct a trial and decide whether to remove Ravnsborg from office.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.
Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.