MARK SANFORD has behaved reprehensibly and irresponsibly. He has been exposed as a first-class hypocrite and lost any scintilla of moral leadership. He is not fit to be called governor and is even more unlikely now than he was six months ago to accomplish anything positive in his final year in office. Our best hope is that he does nothing more to harm our state.
The House impeachment subcommittee took the first step toward limiting further damage on Wednesday, when it rejected an impeachment resolution and instead endorsed a resolution of censure. The full Judiciary Committee should do likewise when it meets on Wednesday, and the full House and Senate should follow suit - quickly - when the Legislature returns to work in January.
Reprehensible as they are, we do not believe that Mr. Sanford's actions - alluding his security detail and making himself unreachable while he cavorted with his Argentine mistress, using state aircraft as his personal taxi and using campaign funds to cover personal expenses - constitute "serious misconduct."
Impeachment for the ethics charges is at best premature; the bar for impeachment on criminal charges should be much higher than for criminal conviction, and at this point we're not even certain there is sufficient cause to bring criminal charges, much less to convict. Impeaching a governor for leaving the country without telling anyone sets a disturbingly low standard, which encourages future legislatures to further lower the bar. Basing an impeachment on the governor's 2008 trade mission to Argentina would be a dangerously far stretch, as it requires gigantic assumptions just to conclude that he had inappropriate motives for the side trip to Buenos Aires, much less that this would have been an abuse of office. (The only thing completely clear about those trips is that they caused great harm to the Sanfords' marriage, a fact that was underlined Friday when Jenny Sanford filed for divorce.)
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But even if you believe Mr. Sanford has engaged in serious misconduct (the constitutional standard is deliberately vague, left for legislators to define), impeachment is not in the best interests of our state. An impeachment and trial would force our entire state to keep wallowing in the ugliness and distract our Legislature from the important business of our state. As Rep. James Smith (who believes Mr. Sanford's actions do constitute "serious misconduct") put it in voting against the impeachment resolution: "This governor is, not quite yet, but soon to be part of our past. I don't want to spend the months ahead having him do any more damage to this state by occupying our time and resources."
Just as impeachment would be a mistake, though, legislative silence would be as well. That is why the resolution of condemnation is the right solution. This resolution - like the impeachment resolution - in no way affects the ethics charges that are pending against Mr. Sanford with the State Ethics Commission or the criminal charges that Attorney General Henry McMaster is considering. Those are legal processes that are moving forward, as they should, though preferably with someone other than Mr. McMaster deciding on criminal charges, in order to bolster public confidence in the impartiality of whatever decision is made.
A resolution of condemnation - like an impeachment - is a purely political judgment. It allows the state's legislative body to officially pass judgment on a governor whose actions cannot be condoned. And, once the Legislature has done that, the resolution allows it to get about the business of the state. And not a moment too soon.