Change in impeachment rules likely stalled

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Republican lawmakers trying to advance a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Missouri Senate jurisdiction over impeachment trials of public officials admit their efforts likely won't be successful.

The House Judiciary Committee endorsed the legislation 6-3 late last month. However, it didn't advance to the full chamber until last week when 55 lawmakers, including seven from Southeast Missouri, signed a petition invoking a rarely used constitutional provision to strip the committee of authority over the measure and place it on the House debate calendar.

Although the provision is intended to allow lawmakers to bypass House leadership in order to advance legislation, in practice it usually means its death, as chamber leaders typically respond to the defiance by ignoring the measure.

State Rep. Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, said that through the extraordinary action of the discharge petition, supporters can at least draw attention to the proposed amendment.

"It is important to begin a dialogue and debate on these kinds of issues," said Cooper, who signed the petition.

With the legislative session ending Friday, Cooper said even if the House approved the measure there probably wouldn't be sufficient time for it to clear the Senate. Other Southeast Missouri lawmakers signing the petition were state Reps. Gayle Kingery of Poplar Bluff, Mike Dethrow of Alton, Peter Myers of Sikeston, Lanie Black of Charleston, Billy Pat Wright of Dexter and Steve Tilley of Perryville.

At present, after a state official is impeached for wrongdoing by the House of Representatives, a trial to determine whether to oust the accused from office is held before the Supreme Court or, in the case of the governor or a high court judge, a special commission of seven "eminent jurists." At the federal level and in other states, impeachment trials are conducted by the Senate.

Tilley said Missourians would have more accountability with impeachment trials handled by elected lawmakers instead of appointed judges.

"Logically it just makes sense because members of the Senate have to answer to voters more than members of the Supreme Court," Tilley said.

Missouri employed such a procedure until voters ratified the current state constitution in 1945. The change was prompted by the Senate's handling of Republican State Treasurer Larry Brunk's 1931 impeachment trial on charges of financial malfeasance in office. The Senate, where Brunk had served before becoming treasurer, failed to muster the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction following a politically charged trial. Then-state Rep. Rush Limbaugh Sr. of Cape Girardeau helped prosecute Brunk.

According the 1971 book "Constitution Making in Missouri: The Convention of 1943-1944" by University of Missouri professor Martin L. Faust, delegates were committed to reforming the impeachment process.

"The conclusion widely held as a result of this experience was that a trial of impeachment charges by the Senate was an inadequate way to arrive at the truth and to protect the public interest, and that a better way should be found," Faust wrote.

The current system was last used for the 1994 impeachment trial of Democratic Secretary of State Judi Moriarty. The Supreme Court convicted her of violating state election laws.

The proposed amendment is HJR 23.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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