Amid Governor's Scandal, Alabamians Clarify Impeachment Rules

A constitutional tweak became embroiled in talk of impeachment, misuse of funds and an alleged affair by Gov. Robert Bentley.
by | November 9, 2016
Gov. Robert Bentley (AP/Brynn Anderson)

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It was intended as a simple copy-editing fix, but it got caught up in a scandal regarding allegations of a governor's sexual affair and misuse of public funds.

A referendum on Tuesday's ballot in Alabama was meant to clarify certain points of impeachment law. But it's impossible to talk about impeachment in Alabama right now strictly in hypothetical terms. Not while there's still talk about impeaching Gov. Robert Bentley.

The measure passed, taking 54 percent of the vote.

The state House Judiciary Committee has hired a special counsel to look into charges that Bentley willfully neglected his duties and misused public funds by using state troopers and aircraft to cover up an alleged affair. Bentley has denied any wrongdoing and also denies having had a physical affair with a former top aide.

The impeachment referendum actually has nothing to do with the Bentley situation. It was placed on the ballot by the legislature last year -- before news of the alleged affair broke.

"It's purely a technical revision just for purposes of clarification," said Howard Walthall, a law professor at Samford University. "It came out of a nonpartisan revision commission two years ago."

But the timing of the vote means it was linked to the governor's current state of affairs.

"There will undoubtedly be, in some people's minds, a connection," said Craig Baab, senior fellow at Alabama Appleseed, a progressive advocacy group, who also stressed that it was a constitutional fix that was in the works prior to Bentley's problems.

Currently, the state constitution doesn't say how many votes are required in the legislature to impeach or convict an official. It calls for a majority vote but doesn't specify whether that means a majority of those sworn into the body and serving, or simply a majority of those present and voting.

Because of the constitutional change approved by voters, an impeachment conviction will now require a two-thirds vote of state senators who are present and voting. It's the same threshold used for convicting a president after an impeachment.

The measure also clarifies that the state superintendent of education is no longer subject to impeachment, while conversely making it clear that members of the board of education can be impeached. Superintendents are appointed and answer to the board, while board members are elected.

No constitutional officer in Alabama has faced impeachment since 1915, when Secretary of State John Purifoy was accused of bribing an opponent to drop out of the race.

Even then, the House voted against impeachment.

"The committee's tasked with not just Bentley's impeachment but with coming up with a mechanism for impeachment now and in the future," said Bill Britt, editor in chief of Alabama Political Reporter, an online news site.

The constitutional change won't take effect until January. By that time, legislators may not care too much. Despite the scandal, they don't seem inclined at this point to impeach Bentley. He'll be term-limited out of office in two years anyways.

"Two things will get Bentley out of office," said Britt. "Time or indictment."

A poll released in September showed that only 35 percent of those surveyed in Alabama approve of the governor's job performance, which is roughly 10 percentage points less than earlier in the year.

By many accounts, Bentley was already pretty much a lame-duck in terms of getting his way with the legislature even before all the scandals broke.

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.