SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – State senators are staying silent on how they will vote in South Dakota's first-ever impeachment trial next week, as they weigh whether to remove Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for his conduct surrounding a 2020 fatal car crash.
The Associated Press asked each of the 35 members of the Republican-controlled Senate whether they had made a decision on the two impeachment charges that will be argued starting Tuesday. None of the 20 who responded said they had reached a decision. Most likened themselves to jurors or judges who must give a fair hearing in an ordeal that has fractured the state’s Republican Party and galvanized public opinion.
“Everybody’s keeping an objective mind and going into it with their eyes wide open,” said Republican Sen. Erin Tobin.
It will take 24 senators, or two-thirds, to convict Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican who isn't seeking reelection, on either of two articles of impeachment: committing crimes that caused the death of pedestrian Joseph Boever and malfeasance afterward.
The circumstances surrounding the two-day trial may have already tipped some senators as they review crash investigation files and material from the House impeachment investigation. Ravnsborg's defense hasn't submitted any documents, so everything they have looked at likely works in the prosecution's favor.
“It would be hard for anyone to look at that information and not come to a conclusion,” said Republican Sen. Michael Rohl. “We haven’t seen a defense.”
Rohl said he hasn't made up his mind. Most of his questions are for Ravnsborg, who has not said whether he will testify.
Other senators have had less time to do their homework on the crash investigation. Republican Sen. Ryan Maher said he is already “agitated” because he will have to take a two-day break from running a new business to spend long hours in a Senate chamber likely baking in the summer heat. Lawmakers usually meet during the winter months, making air conditioning or cooling ventilation unnecessary.
“It’s going to be hot and we’re just going to sit there and sweat,” Maher said.
He said he did not know how he would vote, but said if Ravnsborg is convicted, he would probably vote to bar him from holding any future state office “just because he’s wasting my time now when he should have resigned.”
Other senators said they were looking forward to a trial as a public reckoning over crash details that have emerged in fits and starts in the 21 months since Ravnsborg struck Boever as he drove home from a Republican gathering.
Ravnsborg has said he did not know he killed a man until he returned to the crash site the next day and discovered Boever’s body. He initially told a 911 dispatcher he was in the middle of the road and hit “something.” He later said he thought he hit a deer or other animal and has insisted that neither he nor a sheriff who came to the scene could find what was hit in the dark. Investigators said they doubted some of Ravnsborg's statements.
“I am going to try and understand what really happened,” Republican Sen. Arthur Rusch said in an email. “How did he get on the shoulder — how did he not see Mr. Boever — how did he not see his face in his windshield. How did neither the AG or the sheriff see the body when they walked right by it.”
During the House impeachment investigation, Ravnsborg's defense centered on the constitutional grounds for impeachment and whether the two traffic misdemeanors, to which he pleaded no contest last year, were any reason to impeach him. He has also charged that Gov. Kristi Noem “politically weaponized” the crash to drive him from office.
Noem pressed the impeachment process along. After her administration argued for his removal, impeachment squeaked out of the House by a single vote. In the Senate, where it would require a two-thirds majority to convict Ravnsborg, lawmakers have usually been on the same page with the governor.
The political realities will certainly bear on senators' minds, said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University.
“One would have to be naive to conclude that there’s not at least some political element going on,” he said. “What do constituents think and what does the governor think?”
Republican Sen. V.J. Smith said he has been careful not to comment on the trial out of fairness, even as dozens of people in his community have asked him about it. But he said he's reminded of Boever's death every time he passes the spot where he died on U.S. Highway 14.
“It never really leaves you,” he said. “We’re all looking for closure of a tragic situation.”