The Missouri legislature is considering impeaching a sitting governor for the first time in state history.
It won’t be easy. The rules — the state constitution and Missouri statutes — are vague, and in some places contradictory.
The outcome of the process remains unknown. But Greitens’ unfortunate missteps offer a clear lesson: Lawmakers must rewrite the rulebook that governs impeachment.
The governor faces a litany of legal and ethical challenges involving alleged criminal wrongdoing and campaign finance violations. A felony invasion of privacy charge against him was dropped, but his actions are still under review and another felony charge still looms.
If the House votes to impeach, a panel of seven judges, picked by the state Senate, would conduct the trial. Five must agree for a conviction.
What are the proper grounds for impeachment? The state constitution says they include “any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”
Does “offense” mean a criminal conviction? Can “moral turpitude” include impeachable conduct before taking office? The language isn’t clear.
“There are a lot of things in constitutions that are not spelled out with the detail you would want in a public law,” said Dave Roberts, a history professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
That’s a concern. No constitution can cover every possibility, of course, but Missouri’s should say explicitly that impeachment grounds include improper behavior before a candidate takes office.
The language also should declare that impeachable offenses include non-criminal behavior.
The governor’s lawyers think the full House should conduct something like a trial before voting on articles of impeachment. House officials say that’s the job of the judicial panel. The law should clarify the issue.
Some legislators think the law requires Greitens to temporarily step aside if the House votes for impeachment, even before a trial. Others see it differently. That dispute should be addressed.
The Senate’s procedures for naming judges to the impeachment panel should be clarified as well.
If Greitens is impeached and convicted, or steps down, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would assume office. But who would replace Parson? Again, ambiguous language in the statute complicates the matter.
Parson would either appoint someone to take his place or, per state law, leave the post vacant until the next election.
It’s not unusual for a state to be unprepared for these sorts of circumstances, said Peverill Squire, the Hicks and Martha Griffiths Chair in American Political Institutions at the University of Missouri.
“The fact that the question has been brought up ought to prompt state legislators to devise an appropriate answer and put the process in motion to incorporate it into the state constitution,” Squire said.
We firmly agree. The legislature should appoint an interim committee to study the language guiding the impeachment and removal process and recommend needed changes.
That could include scrapping the seven-judge panel and allowing the Senate to try impeachments. That’s how it’s done by the federal government and almost every other state.
Missouri is in uncharted territory, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, has said. He’s right. When the dust settles, lawmakers should make sure future removal proceedings are clear and not open to interpretation.
Missouri wants to get this right.