Gay marriage at center of Missouri Republicans' bid to impeach governor

GOP lawmakers in Missouri on Wednesday are set to resume a hearing on a resolution to impeach Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. It's a long-shot effort, but it amplifies their beef with the governor over an executive order dealing with gay marriage.

Orlin Wagner/AP/File
Gov. Jay Nixon (D) points out his reasons for opposing a proposed tax cut by the GOP-controlled legislature at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo., on Sept. 11, 2013. The two-term governor is the target of an impeachment bid by Republicans on the state's House Judiciary panel, which takes up the issue in a hearing on Wednesday.

Republicans in Missouri are trying to push through three efforts to impeach the governor in their state, a Democrat – a reflection of the polarized politics that has gripped the state since the 2012 election, when a GOP supermajority won control of the legislature.

A committee hearing on at least one resolution is set for Wednesday.

The impeachment bid is unlikely to succeed, say political watchers. Nonetheless, it will draw public attention to Gov. Jay Nixon's use of executive orders – especially one that cracks open the door to state recognition of gay marriage – and will give Missouri's GOP lawmakers an election-year platform for airing complaints about the governor's decisions.

Last week, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee introduced a resolution to impeach Governor Nixon over his move last November to allow same-sex couples who were legally married in other states to file joint tax returns in Missouri. Nixon said the order aimed to comply with a US Supreme Court decision last summer that paved the way for same-sex couples to qualify for a broad array of federal benefits.

Republicans frame Nixon's move as a violation of the state constitution, which prohibits same-sex marriage. Last week, state Rep. Nick Marshall (R) told the Associated Press that Nixon had “usurped the people and their authority to determine their constitution and their restraints on government.”

That resolution is one of three aimed at ousting the governor. The second resolution charges that Nixon did not fill vacant legislative seats in a timely manner, and the third alleges that he did not adequately punish public safety officials in 2013 for releasing to federal agents the names of thousands of Missouri gun owners who have conceal-carry permits.

Neither of the latter resolutions was heard last week, and it is not clear if they will be taken up during Wednesday's hearing.

Nixon dismisses the resolutions as politics as usual.

Republicans control both legislative houses in Missouri, but fewer than three weeks remain in the session. Impeachment requires a full House vote on a single article of impeachment, followed by a review and a trial by a panel of seven judges appointed by the state Senate to determine if the impeachment is justified.

The state constitution stipulates that elected officials can be removed from office only for “crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”

Impeachment of statewide officeholders is rare in Missouri. A secretary of state was removed from office in 1994, and a state treasurer was impeached in the 1930s but not convicted.

The impeachment resolutions have no strong backing from the public and are merely tools for Republicans to “appeal to their conservative bases as primary season approaches and a way to go on record to object to some of the things the governor has done,” says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “They can push it as much as they want, but I don’t think there’s any political mileage.” 

Nixon won reelection in 2012 and subsequently angered Republicans with his veto threat of a stalled “right to work” bill to curb labor's organizational power in the state. Nixon also vetoed a broad tax-cut measure last year.

However, Nixon has also angered state Democrats, who say he did little to help state legislators in the 2010 and 2012 elections. “He does not have a lot of friends in the legislature, even among Democrats. He’s a fairly easy target,” Squire says.

Nixon is one of three Democratic governors in the US who currently serve alongside majority-Republican legislatures. By contrast, four Republican chief executives govern their states in concert with Democratic-led legislatures. The last governor to be impeached was Illinois' Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, in 2009, who has since been convicted of an array of federal corruption crimes and is serving time in federal prison.

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