Rebuking Lieutenant Governor, State Senate makes unprecedented move to suspend member

State senators chose to override Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden and indefinitely suspend Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller (R-Rapid City) because of alleged conduct towards a legislative staffer
State senators chose to override Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden and indefinitely suspend Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller (R-Rapid City) because of alleged conduct towards a legi
Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 5:28 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. - Over two-thirds of South Dakota state senators moved to indefinitely suspend Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller (R-Rapid City), over the warning of Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden.

Frye-Mueller has come under scrutiny from her colleagues because of an interaction she had with a Legislative Research Council (LRC) staffer earlier this week.

“We were made aware of serious personnel allegations,” said Majority Leader Casey Crabtree (R-Madison). Crabtree brought the motion to suspend the rules, saying, “based on the nature of that allegation we needed to act quickly and prudently to protect the person involved.”

The motion to suspend the rules was required in order to suspend Frye-Mueller from the body while an investigation was pending. It’s the point that Rhoden took serious issue with.

In his capacity as Lieutenant Governor, Rhoden presides over the state senate.

“The rules have been written deliberately and meticulously to keep us within the boundaries of laws that are on the books in our Constitution,” Rhoden explained from the dais. “By suspending the rules, we are denying a member of a longstanding legal tradition in this country of due process.”

An attempt by Rhoden to strike down the motion to suspend the rules was overruled by the required two-thirds of Senate members.

The motion to overrule Rhoden was made by President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown).

As President Pro Tempore, Schoenbeck has authority over membership and committees.

“I don’t have a statue in front of me, and I don’t need one,” Schoenbeck said in response to a question from Rhoden about the legality of the effort. “The rules, as LRC has explained to me, is that we have the ability to protect the decorum of the body.”

Senator Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown) consults with members of the Senate Democrat caucus,...
Senator Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown) consults with members of the Senate Democrat caucus, minutes before heading to the floor to indefinitely suspend Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller (R-Rapid City).(Austin Goss DNN/KOTA)

Schoenbeck added that Frye-Mueller was not being removed from office, only suspended. Likening the investigation into the Rapid City area lawmaker to an HR complaint at a private employer, Schoenbeck argued that the action was appropriate.

But the rules, as previously adopted, would have allowed Frye-Mueller to keep her voting rights in the senate while an investigation was underway. Only after an investigation and a committee vote could Frye-Mueller have been stripped of her voting abilities.

Sen. Tom Pischke (R-Dell Rapids), Frye-Mueller’s seatmate and an ally, gave a passionate speech pushing members of the Senate to oppose the suspension of rules.

Both Frye-Mueller and Pischke have earned the ire of many of their Senate colleagues for staking out more conservative positions on key issues. Last election cycle, Schoenbeck tried fervently to defeat both senators in the primary.

“Your bias towards a certain senator is going to come into play,” Pischke said. “I don’t care how you care about a senator, this is principle. I would make the same speech for each and every one of you.”

Frye-Mueller followed Pischke, stating that she had not yet seen the allegations made against her, pointing out that no charges had been brought.

“I have not been presented with one item of anything... any information at all.” Frye-Mueller said. “I am not getting my due process. We are all supposed to be legislators making the law, and I have not seen anything at all that I have supposedly done.”

Frye-Mueller said that much of the discussion on the motion occurred during a closed door caucus meeting before the floor vote Thursday. Frye-Mueller was banned from attending caucus meetings as part of her punishment Wednesday.

After moving to overrule Rhoden, senators ultimately voted 27-6 to allow a select committee to investigate Frye-Mueller’s conduct to be created. That motion was brought by Sen. Michael Rohl (R-Aberdeen) and Sen. Herman Otten (R-Tea).

“The Senate will operate swiftly and diligently through the process of an investigation and provide the opportunity for due process to all parties involved,” Rohl said in a statement after.

Lawmakers did not give an exact timeline as to when a select committee to investigate would be formed, but Crabtree indicated that they intended to have the process completed by early next week.

State legislators will return to Pierre on Monday.