The impeachment of Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois sharpened my curiosity: How many other state chief executives have fallen afoul of the constitutional impeachment mechanism. Most news stories claimed that Governor Rod, now gone but for the lingering scent emanating from the senator-who-should-never-have-been-seated (Roland Burris), was the eighth governor impeached and removed from office. That, like so much we read, is not quite right.
The list of removed governors had to be incomplete, I knew, because there was no one on it from Kansas, and I knew a governor from that state had been impeached in 1862. This information came my way because the impeachment furor over him (John Robinson) proved to be a distraction that saved the hide of young Edmund G. Ross (below left), a printer who had been conspiring with his competitors to jack up bids on state printing contracts. Ross, you may recall, became the final vote that saved President Andrew Johnson from removal during his impeachment trial in 1862. The impeachment gavotte whirled somewhat manically in that era.
But my memory was slightly off, since Governor Robinson was not convicted. That’s always the confusion: impeachment is (in effect) the indictment of the office-holder, and is performed by the lower house of the legislature, while removal requires conviction by the upper house after a trial.
After I realized I had made a rookie mistake, I buckled down to the task, I have been able to identify nine governors who were impeached and removed from office. They are a diverse group, and not without some virtues.
- Evan Mecham of Arizona (1988) — Accused of funneling state money to save his auto dealership, Mecham was removed in a proceeding I actually remember, but then was acquitted in a criminal trial. He died last year. (He’s not the one with virtues.)
- Henry Johnston of Oklahoma (1929) — This guy (below right) was the Rasputin of state impeachments; hard to kill. He was first impeached in 1928, but was acquitted; the following year, he was impeached again and this time the state Senate convicted him of “general incompetence.” The first round of impeachment charges focused on his personal secretary, Mrs. O.O. Hammonds, who was thought to be running the state. The second round seems to have been triggered by Governor Johnston’s controversial political positions (i) of support for Al Smith, a Catholic, in his run for president, in opposition to what Johnson called the “religious bigots” who opposed Smith in Oklahoma, and (ii) of support for the repeal of Prohibition. There’s a lot to like about Governor Johnston.
- James Ferguson of Texas (1917): This fellow became ensnarled in a major argument with the University of Texas over faculty members who the governor — no fan of the First Amendment — thought should be fired. After Ferguson vetoed most of the university’s budget, the legislature impeached him on a grab-bag of charges, including embezzlement of public funds and accepting $156,000 from a source which he refused to reveal. The State Senate convicted him by a 25-3 margin. Even though “Farmer Jim” was thereafter disqualfied from holding office in Texas, Texans had not seen the last of him. Ferguson turned his efforts to getting his wife (Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, below) elected as governor, and succeeded in doing so in 1924 and 1932. They jointly touted her candidacy as “two governors for the price of one” and she had the considerable distinction of opposing the Ku Klux Klan.