LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With the first day of the 2021 General Assembly less than a month away, Kentucky lawmakers are receiving emails, letters, and petitions demanding the impeachment of Gov. Andy Beshear over his efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“In light of the recent actions taken by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear infringing on the rights of our citizens, we feel that it is necessary for him to be impeached,” one popular petition promoted by the American Family Association (AFA) of Kentucky says. Among the reasons to impeach Beshear, according to the petition, are his order preventing people from worshipping, putting thousands of people out of work, and mandatting masks.
Dr. Frank Simon, who leads the AFA of Kentucky, told Spectrum News 1 that Beshear has acted unconstitutionally by “interfering with the free exercise of religion.” He also accused Beshear of cheering on a bigger and more devastating pandemic to hurt President Donald Trump, who Simon said won last month’s election. However, election results, certified in several key states, show President-elect Joe Biden as the winner. Biden secured the 270+ electoral votes needed for the presidency.
On Change.org, one petition calling for Beshear’s impeachment has just under 21,000 signatures. Another is nearing 35,000 signatures. Both say Beshear’s attempts to limit attendance at churches is unconstitutional and worthy of impeachment. Legislators are also receiving form letters both by email and through the postal service asking them to support the move.
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment, but Beshear, whose approval rating on COVID-19 issues has been consistently high, has denied singling out churches in his spring orders that banned mass gatherings. In early May, a federal judge exempted in-person religious services from the ban, which was lifted less than a week later. Last month, Beshear resurfaced the issue when he asked churches to suspend in-person services as COVID-19 cases spike around the commonwealth.
“He can’t close churches because the Constitution guarantees our freedom of religion,” said Scott Hofstra, spokesperson for the United Kentucky Tea Party. “He has no authority to shut down restaurants, then use the health department as his enforcement arm. He’s doing everything he can to kill the economy. Something’s got to stop him.”
Hofsta said a Kentucky attorney is currently drafting articles of impeachment which will be released to the public and sent to legislators in the coming weeks. The Kentucky Constitution says impeachment must originate in the State House, and Hofstra is hopeful one of the 75 Republicans who will be sworn in next month will take those articles and introduce them.
“I’ve talked to three or four Representatives who are in favor of it, and a couple that are not,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see, when push comes to shove, when the articles get introduced, how it’s going to go.” A spokesperson for Kentucky's House Republican Caucus did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
If the Kentucky House votes to impeach Beshear, which can be done with a simple majority, he would face a trial by the Kentucky Senate. A two-thirds vote by the Senate, where more than two-thirds of members are Republican, would result in his conviction.
Ken Katkin, a law professor at Northern Kentucky Univeristy’s Chase College of Law, said impeachment is generally reserved for more serious infractions. But the Kentucky Constitution says a governor “shall be liable to impeachment for any misdemeanors in office.”
“That’s a fairly low threshold,” Katkin said. “If the House of Representatives thinks Gov. Beshear’s mask order constitutes a misdemeanor, that’s their political judgement. I don’t think the Constitution prevents them from voting on articles of impeachment for that.”
But impeaching Beshear would mark a “great break from Kentucky historical precedent,” Katkin said. “Some Kentucky governors have committed very serious crimes, but none have ever been impeached.”
University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss said impeachment is typically only used against executives who abuse their office or exhibit corrupt behavior, not to settle policy disputes. “For the Republican supermajority to impeach Beshear would be seen as more of an attack on the norms of the American political system, in which election outcomes should be respected,” he said. “It would not be seen as the sanctions of illegal or highly inappropriate behavior for which impeachment has been used in the past.”
Cries for impeachment among activists are not uncommon when leaders take actions that are unpopular with a swath of the electorate. Nor have they been uncommon during the pandemic, with several governors seeing articles of impeachment filed against them.
Still, Voss said, he’d be surprised to see much momentum behind the Beshear impeachment push. “You might get one or two fringe legislators making noise about impeachment,” he said. Instead, he thinks the GOP will follow through on its promise to crub the governor's emergency powers. "I expect to see a combination of lawsuits and legislative efforts to clarify and possibly limit what governors may do on his own," he said.
Adam K. Raymond is married to Kentucky Representative Josie Raymond who represents District 31 which covers portions of Jefferson County.