The failure of the South Carolina House Judiciary Committee to forward an impeachment resolution against embattled Gov. Mark Sanford Wednesday struck at the heart of pent-up frustration in the Palmetto State about the governor's alleged “dereliction of duty” in disappearing incommunicado from office for five days over the summer.
Few took the House’s failure to impeach as personally as Rep. Todd Rutherford, a labor lawyer who saw a double standard in the committee’s decision to censure, not impeach, Governor Sanford. Censure, if approved by the House and Senate, is a rebuke, but carries no fines or consequences.
“Censure? Who cares?” Representative Rutherford said during a 17-minute diatribe that brought a sharp rebuke from Judicary chairman Jim Harrison, who said Rutherford himself skated dangerously close to “serious misconduct” after calling his colleagues “idiots” and referring to the committee as a “kangaroo court.”
Rutherford, a Democrat, was one of eight members to vote for an impeachment resolution against the Republican governor; 18 voted against. Concerns about the succession of power, further damage to the image of the state, and polls that show South Carolinians have had enough of the scandal played into the decision to not send an impeachment resolution to the entire House.
“The exchange [between Rutherford and Chairman Harrison] was a rare public glimpse at private frustration that some lawmakers have felt about the impeachment debate,” writes The State reporter John O’Connor. “Lawmakers have said privately that outside political forces – including public opinion, House leadership and lawmakers concerned about the impact impeachment would have on the 2010 governor's race – have hamstrung the process from the beginning.”
For Rutherford, the failure to impeach played into what he called a widespread belief that South Carolina politicians look out only for themselves and one another instead of the voters.
“People on the street told me, ‘You all ain’t going to do something. You all don’t do nothing anyway,’” said Rutherford. “I said, ‘Trust me, I promise you we’re going to do something.’ I’m embarrassed to say they’re right, we ain’t done nothing.”
Rutherford noted that he has represented state employees who went to jail for falsifying their time cards. Sanford, Rutherford pointed out, had paid back $3,300 for a trip he took to see his mistress in Argentina in June 2008 – a bald admission of wrongdoing, Rutherford said.
"If he were a state empoyee and he worked for me, I’d find a way to put him in jail," Rutherford said, his voice rising. "But for us that’s OK, that’s the standard we set. I don’t know where I want to live in a state where employees can go missing for five days and not get fired.”
Recent statewide polls have shown support for impeachment flagging across the state, though lawmakers insisted they did not base their votes on polls.
Harrison said the issue wasn’t as simple as a state employee behaving badly. Yes, the governor is paid by the state, he argued, but Sanford is also the beneficiary of a statewide election. Impeachment in this case, Harrison said, could be an intrusion on the wall between the legislative and executive branch, and might misrepresent the voters’ wishes.
Harrison and Rutherford later established "good will among men again," as Harrison said, after Rutherford explained that his references to "idiots" were intended to reflect the public's view of House lawmakers, not his own.