PIERRE, S.D. - A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow people to sue judges and other government officials must be defeated because it would destroy the American system of government, members of a South Dakota Senate committee said Wednesday.
The State Affairs Committee voted unanimously for a resolution that urges South Dakota voters to reject the proposed constitutional amendment when it appears on the November ballot.
The House passed the resolution unanimously nearly two weeks ago, and lawmakers hope the Senate will also approve HCR1004 unanimously later this week.
The resolution says the proposed constitutional amendment was drafted by a California resident who has failed to get the measure on that state's ballot. The ballot measure is promoted as a remedy for intentional misconduct for judges, but it also would allow lawsuits against state and local boards and commissions, according to the resolution.
Supporters of the ballot measure argue it is needed to hold judges accountable for intentionally violating people's rights.
But Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, said the proposed constitutional amendment is backed by the same kind of people who killed a U.S. marshal in North Dakota years ago because they hate the American system of government.
Schoenbeck said Ron Branson, the California man who started the judicial accountability movement, is mistaken in his belief that a grand jury should be the top power in government.
"It's easy to be an authority if you're not limited by reality," Schoenbeck said.
Schoenbeck said Branson and other supporters of the ballot measure apparently want to destroy the American system of government set up by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the nation's other founders.
"The reality is Mr. Branson and his people from Hollywood do not like America," Schoenbeck said.
In a telephone interview, Branson said he is limiting his comments until after the Senate gives final legislative approval to the resolution condemning the ballot measure. He said he hopes the Legislature approves the resolution.
"They don't know what they're doing. They have no idea of the implications of what they're doing," Branson said.
Branson said he does not hate America.
"I would ask you how is it that enforcement of the laws of the state of South Dakota is somehow indicative that I hate America. It doesn't make sense," Branson said.
Branson said state lawmakers have sworn to uphold the state and federal constitutions.
"I can tell you we are investigating these people right now for their conflicts of interest," Branson said.
Schoenbeck said Branson has challenged him to debate the issue, and he is ready to do that anytime, anywhere.
"I don't think we've ever called you for help in this state," Schoenbeck said in remarks directed toward Branson. "We don't need your trash here."
Senate Democratic Leader Garry Moore of Yankton said he has received more than 100 e-mails from around the nation criticizing the Legislature for opposing the ballot measure. Many of those e-mails are infected with viruses or worms intended to interfere with his computer, Moore said.
Moore said he hopes South Dakota voters "tell them to go to hell and we'll take care of our own affairs here in South Dakota."
Opponents have said the ballot measure would threaten the fairness and independence of the judiciary by making judges afraid they would be sued for their decisions. It also would allow lawsuits against members of school boards, city councils, county commissions and other state and local boards that make decisions of a judicial nature, they said.
In addition, opponents contend the current system works because it allows bad court rulings to be overturned on appeal, a state disciplinary board can punish or remove judges, and voters can get throw out judges they do not like.
The proposal would make South Dakota the first state to let people who believe their rights have been violated put judges on trial.
People could file complaints against judges after the traditional appeals process has concluded. A special grand jury would handle complaints, deciding whether a judge could be sued or face criminal charges.
The measure would overturn more than a century of settled law in the United States by stripping judges of their absolute immunity from lawsuits over their judicial acts. Immunity would be eliminated in cases involving alleged deliberate violations of constitutional rights or the law or the deliberate disregard of facts.
Each member of the Senate committee spoke Wednesday to condemn the proposed constitutional amendment.
Sen. Kenny McNenny, R-Sturgis, said the American system of government involves the judicial, executive and legislative branches, which act as checks and balances against each other. He said the proposed amendment would allow the special grand jury to override all laws and all constitutional provisions, and no one could appeal the grand jury's decisions.
"It just scares me to death," McNenny said.
The measure will appear on the November ballot because supporters collected far more than the 33,456 valid signatures required, but senators said many South Dakotans who signed the petitions did not understand what the measure would do.