Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Anger over impeachment vote is misplaced

In 1982, the state Senate refused to expel then-Sen. Gene Carmichael, even though he had been convicted on federal vote-buying charges. A decade later, it didn't even consider expelling Sen. Bud Long after he was indicted on federal vote-selling charges. In fact, the only time in the modern era it has expelled anyone was in 1995, when Sen. Theo Mitchell wasn't able to show up for work because he was serving time in federal prison for failing to report large cash transactions he handled on behalf of a client later convicted on drug charges.

In all three cases, the lack of action (or, in Mr. Mitchell's case, the delay) had no effect on the criminal charges; all three men were convicted.

That's because the Senate's and House's power to remove their own members is a power separate from and in addition to the prosecutorial power held by state and federal prosecutors. Criminal prosecution is used to punish individuals for violating the law; the Senate's and House's constitutional power to judge the qualifications of their members - which can be used to remove members even absent criminal charges - is meant to protect the state from being governed by people who are not fit to govern.

The same is true of the power of impeachment.

Although most South Carolinians are well past ready to move beyond Gov. Mark Sanford, many remain hungry for blood. They're angry that the House Judiciary Committee refused to recommend impeachment and will be clamoring for the full House to reverse course come January.

Some people honestly believe that the governor's actions constitute an impeachable offense, and while I disagree with them, I respect their opinion; the state constitution is deliberately vague on precisely what is and isn't an impeachable offense, and reasonable people can disagree on what the definition should include.

Most of the discontented, however, are simply confused about what impeachment means.

I can't count the number of letters we've received that complain that representatives are allowing the governor to get away with committing a crime. One writer suggested that since the governor was only being censured and not impeached, all criminals should be released from prison and sent home with a censure.

At the risk of sounding like I'm defending Mr. Sanford's appalling actions - his sanctimony and hypocrisy, his almost-certain misuse of state planes and his gross irresponsibility - I think it's important to understand what's wrong with most of the criticisms of the Legislature.

Although it doesn't seem likely (and I'm not certain it's warranted), it is possible that Mr. Sanford could be prosecuted for using the state plane for personal purposes. He already faces administrative proceedings before the State Ethics Commission, and could be fined as much as $74,000 if that body rules against him on all 37 counts; I find that highly unlikely (and certainly unwarranted), but I would be surprised if he isn't found to have violated the law in some of those cases.

There is a tiny bit of legal dispute as to whether any action other than impeachment can be taken against the governor while he's governor (and a larger dispute as to whether any action should be done while he's governor), but there's no question that administrative and criminal charges can be pursued after a governor leaves office; the state constitution makes it clear that impeachment, regardless of the outcome, does not bar criminal prosecution and punishment. Mr. Sanford's attorneys have not suggested that they plan to challenge the Ethics Commission's authority to take action against him while he remains in office, but then I wouldn't have expected them to say anything so provocative while impeachment was still on the table.

A lot of the confusion flows from the way many people look at Mr. Sanford's Argentine vacation, comparing his disappearing act to an employee who simply doesn't show up for work. A recent letter-writer is typical: "If a state employee didn't show up for work for several days without calling in sick or getting permission from his or her supervisor, he would be fired.... The way one fires the governor is by impeachment."

It's a convenient analogy, but it's a bad analogy.

Mr. Sanford didn't unexpectedly fail to show up for work. He took vacation. His staff knew he was on vacation; they just didn't know where. Now, you can argue that a governor has an obligation to be reachable at all times, but saying that regular Joes would be fired for doing what he did is quite literally saying that those regular Joes deserve to be fired if they don't tell their bosses what they're doing on vacation and if they turn off their cell phones and don't check their e-mail while they're gone.

The other problem with the analogy is that it presumes that a governor has an immediate supervisor, who gives him daily work assignments and has him clock in and out. He doesn't, and in fact there's no legal obligation that constitutional officers put in a 40-hour work week - or even show up at the office. A governor has no one to ask permission to leave the office. Instead, we must rely on him to use his good judgment, and hope the election system will sort everything out.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sanford has demonstrated that he does not have good judgment, and we don't get a chance to refuse to re-elect him. But that doesn't mean that firing him is in the best interest of our state - and that's the standard that legislators are rightly using.