Then & Now: Impeachment in Kentucky

If you’ve followed local news in Kentucky the past few days, the word “impeachment” has come up more than once. It was front page news in Wednesday’s news. (August 31, 2016). That’s because of a news story out of Jessamine County. I’m not going to go into the issues on this site because there are plenty of news sites covering the story du jour. Let’s just say that Kentucky is living up to its hype as the place where “politics [are] the damnedest.”

Let’s instead look at the historical side of impeachment in Kentucky. In 1991, the Legislative Research Commission published an Informational Bulletin entitled Impeachment in Kentucky “designed to assist future legislatures in conducting impeachments, and to provide the public with a look into the process itself.”

Section 68 of Kentucky’s 1891 Constitution provides that the “Governor and all civil officers” are subject to impeachment. Throughout the history of the Commonwealth, however, there have been only four impeachments. These are there stories.

Thomas Jones, Surveyor of Bourbon County

In 1803, the surveyor of Bourbon County was impeached by the Kentucky House of Representatives. This incident was long lost to history until it was discovered in 1991 by then-professor John Rogers of the University of Kentucky College of Law who was acting as Special Advisor to the House Impeachment Committee in the Burnette case (described below). Professor Rogers is now Judge Rogers of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his capacity as surveyor, Jones helped to establish land boundaries for private citizens and government entities alike. He served an important role and his errors would result in litigation for decades. His charge of impeachment was “for overcharging the state for work done, for failure to perform his duties, and for surveying the wrong tracts of land.” 
After approved by the House, the articles of impeachment were transferred to the Senate for trial. During the trial, Jones resigned his position though the Senate proceeded with the charges and ordered him “perpetually excluded from office.” 
The case is particularly unique because it remains the only incident where a jury was empaneled to determine evidence for a legislature during a U.S. impeachment trial.

“Honest Dick” Tate, State Treasurer

“Honest Dick” Tate
An important lesson: if you are the treasurer of an organization, don’t take the money. “Honest Dick” apparently struggled with this lesson.
And although he had earned a reputation of honesty amongst his colleagues while serving in the general assembly. In 1867, he left the General Assembly to run for the office of State Treasurer.
In those days, there were no term limits for the position and “Honest Dick” “faithfully” served the Commonwealth as treasurer for over two decades.
That is, until he absconded most of the state’s treasury in March, 1888. He was impeached and tried in abstentia later that year being found guilty of four counts. 
Neither the funds nor Tate were ever seen again. When he abandoned both his post and his family, he did so aboard a train bound for Cincinnati. Later, his daughter received post cards from her father over the years with postmarks bearing the locales of San Francisco, Japan, Brazil, China, and British Columbia (Canada). It was reported that Tate died in China in 1890. 

Judge J.E. Williams – McCreary County

All in 1916: the citizens of McCreary County charged that their local judge executive “had committed numerous acts of misfeasance and malfeasance as county judge.” The House voted to impeach, 48 to 45. In trial before the Senate, however, Judge Williams was acquitted. 
Conviction requires a vote of two-thirds of the Assembly and apparently the evidence was not sufficient. The Informational Bulletin speaks to why such a high burden exists: “[impeachment] is a several of the inherent power of the people in a democratic society to choose those who govern.” It’s worth noting that 19 states also afford the people in a democratic society to recall their elected officials and that Kentucky is not among that body of states.

Ward “Butch” Burnette – Commissioner of Agriculture

In 1991, state Agriculture Commissioner Butch Burnette was convicted in Franklin Circuit Court of theft by deception.

According to his obituary in 2000, Burnette “served 49 days of a one-year sentence for a 1990 theft conviction for payment to a secretary before she actually began working. He was fined $1,500 in that case and $5,000 for an unrelated theft conviction involving charter flights taken at state expense after Mr. Burnette was elected in 1987 but before he took office in January 1988.”

The House adopted a single article of impeachment citing the conviction for a “theft of funds belonging to the Commonwealth.” Hours before the Senate commenced its trial, the Agriculture Commissioner resigned and the proceedings were terminated.

Will there ever be a fifth impeachment proceeding in Kentucky? Perhaps. But the stories of the first four are a fascinating part of the Commonwealth’s history.