This is a time of strong opinions, strong statements, and strong actions. In such times it is important to recognize there is The Process.
The Process often is ugly. The Process often is painful. The Process often seems to take longer than it should.
But The Process is what assures us that there is order. And without order, there is no justice.
This is one of those times when The Process emerges from its normal daily work to become a prominent factor in our state political system.
This observer has seen two Speakers of the House and one Attorney General sent to prison. He has seen a Secretary of State impeached and removed from office. He has seen a State Treasurer exonerated after being charged with profiting from state funds. He has covered criminal proceedings against at least 17 members of the House and three members of the Senate that resulted in convictions or guilty pleas to misdemeanors and to felonies.
In forty years of front-line reporting in state government, he watched 1,032 people serve in the General Assembly, interviewed or covered (in one form or another) eleven governors, nine lieutenant governors, eleven Secretaries of State, eleven state auditors, ten state treasurers, and eight attorneys general. Now he is watching something new and wondering how, in the end, this circumstance will fit into the list of those mentioned in the earlier paragraph.
For the first time in state history, a sitting governor faces both criminal proceedings and the potential for removal efforts. People from both sides are calling for him to resign.
The Process has become his greatest protection as well as his greatest threat. It diminishes emotion. It provides a structure for a balanced determination of justice. It is not perfect but The Process gives balance in times of fierce attacks and equally fierce denials.
A special House committee has presented its first report of the legitimacy of allegations against the governor, who has called its work a “witch hunt.” The committee was led by an honorable chairman, wisely picked by a Speaker who has chosen to respect The Process despite the difficulties the committee’s hearings might cause for several people whose lives have been altered by events. The committee has not judged the governor but it has concluded the key witness against him is credible.
The governor says the report was drafted without any testimony in his own defense. The committee reports the governor refused invitations to testify. The governor says he will testify after his criminal trial ends and that is within his rights. Simply put, the stakes are higher in his criminal trial than they are in the committee’s study. The potential loss of office is serious but not nearly as serious as a potential conviction and possible loss of freedom in the criminal case. The governor’s decision is not really that hard to make under those circumstances. It is a legitimate part of The Process.
While the committee’s first report seems to be devastating news for the governor, it also is valuable news to the governor because it provides him and his defenders with a strong preview of the kind of testimony they will have to attack in the criminal proceeding next month. It also provides them with a challenge. They must determine how to undermine the credibility of that testimony without antagonizing a jury. The governor says he is confident a jury of his peers will exonerate him. His lawyers gain through this report an understanding of a fine line they will have to walk in disputing the validity of the testimony without making the witness so sympathetic in the eyes of the jury that the jury of peers tilts the wrong way for their client.
It’s The Process at work.
The committee report strengthens and increases the resolve of those who demand the governor resign. But it also strengthens his position that he should stay because a report is not a jury nor are those demanding his resignation jurors. As long as The Process considers a person innocent until proven guilty within The System, he is innocent.
He still retains the powers of governor although his ability to govern remains badly weakened. But if he resigns the office he was elected to hold and then is found not guilty of criminal charges, he has no way of returning to the office in which the voters chose him to serve.
The Speaker and the President Pro Tem have said the legislature will start its process of convening a special session to consider penalties for the behavior described by the committee’s witness. Voters in 1988 approved a constitutional amendment letting the legislature convene itself in special session for as many as thirty days without a call of the governor. Article III, Section 20(b) says the session can be called by three-fourths of the members of the House and three-fourths of the members of the Senate, a big requirement but a possibility given the committee report and the existing poor relations between the governor and the legislature.
The House does not have the power to remove the governor. It can only file charges. The Senate, in the case of a sitting governor, does not have the power of removal either. Its authority rests in appointing seven “eminent jurists” to conduct a legal proceeding. Again, The Process brings the matter into The System where justice is determined, we should all hope, in a non-partisan and less emotional setting. Only those jurists can determine if he should forfeit his office.
This also is a time for firm hands on the reins in the legislature. While the committee continues investigating the governor—-and there is no indication when it might drop the other shoe—the legislature still has about five weeks to focus on its lawmaking responsibilities. The legislature must provide a budget that will keep government services going to the people who need them. It also must determine the fates of several issues that will affect the hourly lives of Missouri citizens. That is its responsibility until 6 p.m., May 18.
It is not precluded, with three-fourths of the members agreeing, during that time from setting a date for the House to begin impeachment proceedings in a special session. It might choose—out of respect for The Process—to set dates that do not conflict with the governor’s right as a citizen to obtain a fair trial. That’s The System, maintaining order in the legislative process.
The governor, as is his prerogative, is entitled to his office until he is removed or disqualified from holding it. While retaining his position is not popular with many people, it is his prerogative.
The Process is in place and it is moving. It is protecting the governor while at the same time threatening him, as it would do with you and me if we were facing serious accusations. The result might not be what you or I would prefer. But The Process is, in the end, our best hope for justice for you and me.
And for the governor.
Appears on Bob’s Blog at bobpriddy.net.