March 1, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Oregon should offer impeachment option

4 min read
Oregon should not be the only state that requires millions of dollars and half a year to remove corrupt executive officials from office.

by Marty Wilde

Oregon voters should be asked to add cost-effective and expeditious impeachment as a constitutional remedy for misconduct in office.

Among the states, only Oregon lacks impeachment. Instead, the Oregon Constitution provides for a recall process, which was added by the voters in 1908. Alternatives to the recall process exist for legislators and judges, but not executive officials like the governor, secretary of state, and treasurer. Unlike impeachment, which is both fairly quick and evidence-based, the recall process inherently requires substantial cost and delay.

Removal or suspension of legislators and judges. While all elected officials are subject to recall, legislators and judges may also be removed or suspended through alternative processes. With a two-thirds vote, each chamber of the legislature may expel a member for cause.

When then-Rep. Mike Nearman admitted rioters into the Capitol, the Oregon House expelled him with a vote of 59-1. (I voted for the expulsion, although I had been excused for military duty on the day the misconduct occurred.)

Similarly, since 1968, judges may be suspended or removed by the Oregon Supreme Court. Judge Vance Day was suspended for three years by the Supreme Court in 2018 for providing access to a firearm to a felon and inappropriately screening out same sex marriages from his courtroom.

The Recall Process. The recall process is currently the only way to remove an executive officer in Oregon. By submitting a petition with 15% of the voters in the officer’s district (which may be the entire state) in the most recent gubernatorial election, the people may require that a recall be placed on a ballot within 35 days.

For comparison, a statutory initiative petition only requires 6% of voters to sign on to put the matter on the ballot, while a constitutional change requires 8%. If a majority of the voters in the recall election vote to recall, the officer is removed after the vote is certified (usually a few weeks), and the position is filled as if the office holder had died during their term.

The recall process is expensive and lengthy. With just under 2,000,000 voters in the last governor’s race, an initiative petition would need about 300,000 signatures to qualify a recall for a statewide executive officer. At an average cost of about $13 per signature, that works out to about $4 million to qualify a recall petition for a statewide elected officer for the ballot, not including any other campaign costs. In effect, the time required to recall a statewide officer would likely be at least 6 months.

We have been fortunate that statewide officeholders who lost the public trust resigned in 2015 (governor) and 2023 (secretary of state), rather than forcing the time and expense of recall campaigns. But we should rely on law, not fortune, to maintain good governance.

An Impeachment Proposal. House Joint Resolution (HJR) 203 in the 2022 session would have referred to voters an impeachment amendment to the Oregon constitution. If approved by the voters, statewide elected officers could have been impeached for “for malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor” upon a 3/5 vote of the Oregon House and removed from office upon conviction by the Oregon Senate with a 2/3 vote. (Note that the former is a higher standard than in the federal constitution.)

The HJR had bipartisan sponsors, including me. However, the House Democratic Party leadership refused to give it a hearing, and my discharge petition to bring it to a vote on the floor failed by a 26-30 vote. I was told that the leadership did not want to appear to be critical of the governor, although I made clear that I was not supporting it for that purpose and that it would not take effect until her term had expired even if approved by the voters.

The amendment referral has again been introduced in the House as HJR 16, and it again enjoys bipartisan support. As Rep. Shelly Boshart-Davis put it, “Recent events illustrate, yet again, the importance of having an impeachment procedure on the books as a check against negligence and abuse of power by public officials.”

Although a similar effort was introduced in the Senate, neither the House nor the Senate Democratic leadership has held or proposed to hold a hearing on it. Indeed, a discharge petition failed in the Senate last month when every Senate Democrat voted against it.

Conclusion. I certainly support the authority of the people to recall their elected officers in appropriate circumstances. However, the time and money required to mount a recall petition limit its use to well-funded interests and prevents it from being using quickly when an officer-holder commits significant misconduct. These delays often benefit a corrupt incumbent, who may take advantage of the delay to negotiate a resignation to avoid or mitigate criminal liability.

If approved by the voters, an impeachment process can lower these risks and allow for greater accountability. Oregon should not be the only state that requires millions of dollars and half a year to remove corrupt executive officials from office.

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