Oregon Legislature could gain power to impeach governor, other elected officials

Oregon lawmakers would gain the power to impeach and remove misbehaving statewide elected officials under a measure that sailed through the House with no opposition Thursday. 

House Joint Resolution 16 now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to easily pass. It would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 2024 to give the state House the power to impeach statewide elected officials and the Senate the power to hold a trial and remove them from office.

Oregon is the only state in the country that doesn’t allow impeachment of statewide officials, including the governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general. The House and Senate have the authority to expel lawmakers and the state Supreme Court can remove or suspend judges, but statewide officials who don’t voluntarily resign can only be removed through an expensive, time-consuming recall election. 

Rep. Jami Cate, a Lebanon Republican who co-sponsored the resolution, said she hopes the Legislature never needs to use it. But the state should have a tool in place to remove elected officials who commit crimes or neglect their offices instead of hoping they’ll resign under public pressure, she said. 

“This is the ultimate just-in-case resolution,” Cate said. 

Cate stressed that the measure wasn’t related to any particular elected official, though the state has experienced two high-profile scandals with statewide officials who couldn’t be impeached within the past decade.

Former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber eventually resigned under pressure in 2015 over revelations that he and his fiancée used the office for personal gain, though his resignation didn’t come until several days after Democratic leaders in the House and Senate publicly called on him to quit. And former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan resigned in early May, a few days after news broke of her moonlighting for a cannabis company regulated by a state agency her office was auditing. 

Federal prosecutors investigated Kitzhaber for more than two years, eventually dropping charges. He ended up paying $20,000 in fines to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for conflicts of interest. Federal prosecutors and the state commission are now investigating Fagan.

The impeachment amendment received a hearing in the House in mid-May, shortly after Fagan resigned, but it didn’t come up for a vote for nearly a month. Republicans claimed credit for the measure moving forward, saying it was part of a deal they negotiated to bring Senate Republicans back from a six-week quorum-denying walkout.

Even so, House Republicans aren’t clamoring to impeach anyone.

“Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for us just to behave?” quipped Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, as he voted for the measure. 

If voters approve the amendment in 2024, it would require a two-thirds vote in the House to impeach a statewide official and a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict. The chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court would preside over the trial in the Senate, which House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said was intended to prevent a conflict of interest from the Senate president being in the line of succession for governor. 

The measure would allow impeachment for “malfeasance or corrupt conduct in office, willful neglect of statutory or constitutional duty or other felony or high crime.” 

“Any future Legislature that potentially takes up an impeachment case would, generally speaking, have the authority and the responsibility to define what behavior is impeachable, based on the facts of each case,” Fahey said. 

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.