With his impeachment effort against the governor making little progress, state Rep. John Becker pulled up his email and brainstormed a late-night solution.
It was almost 2 a.m. when Becker typed out a request to the Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan group that conducts law and policy research for lawmakers.
“I believe that Governor DeWine is in violation of (Ohio Revised Code) 2921.45,” Becker wrote in the Sept. 1 email. “What is the process for criminal charges to be filed? Can the (Attorney General) do that? Other options?”
Still waiting for an answer, Becker sent another 2 a.m. request a few days later. He sought more “legislative history and legal case law” involving the 2921.45 section of code.
The law states: “No public servant, under color of his office, employment, or authority, shall knowingly deprive, or conspire or attempt to deprive any person of a constitutional or statutory right.” Violators are guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Becker is among the biggest critics of DeWine in the state legislature and views the governor’s response to COVID-19 as amounting to a “constitutional crisis.” The decision to delay primary election voting, the temporary closure of some businesses, the mask mandate — to Becker, these are the instances of DeWine assuming “dictatorial powers” and violating Ohioans’ constitutional rights.
Becker wants to see if DeWine can face criminal punishment for his pandemic response.
“My goal is to get the state opened up and the abuse of power to come to an end,” Becker said to the Ohio Capital Journal.
Impeachment and criminal charges?
Throughout 2020, DeWine has relied on a separate section of state law which gives the Ohio Department of Health authority to make “special or standing orders … for preventing the spread of contagious or infectious diseases.”
There have been a slew of lawsuits and legislative challenges to that authority. Becker sponsored one of the first bills seeking to limit the power of the state health director and many other Republican-sponsored bills have followed. DeWine has vowed to veto any such bill which interferes with the state’s pandemic response.
On Aug. 24, Becker announced he had drafted articles of impeachment against DeWine. Three fellow Republican legislators immediately gave support for impeachment: Reps. Nino Vitale of Urbana, Candice Keller of Middletown and Paul Zeltwanger of Mason.
“For my colleagues, it’s put up or shut up,” Becker said.
Becker claims there was support for impeachment from at least one Republican member who wound up not joining as a sponsor.
There was swift backlash from Ohio Republican leaders the day articles were drafted, which Becker thinks quashed any desire for others to join the effort.
“Nobody wants to touch it,” Becker said.
Becker had planned to officially file the articles a week or so after drafting them, but instead is holding off. Once they are filed, no one else can sign on as a sponsor. He’s holding out hope that legislative sentiments may change before the end of 2020.
It would take a majority vote from the Ohio House of Representatives to impeach DeWine, then a two-thirds vote from the Ohio Senate to convict him. With only four representatives currently on board, they are 46 supporters short.
Speaker of the House Bob Cupp, R-Lima, has come out against the impeachment effort, saying that policy disagreements do not rise to the level of removing the governor.
In a recent YouTube video, Becker acknowledged his colleagues believe the disagreements should be resolved legislatively rather through impeachment.
“Frankly I agree,” Becker said. “Legislation was the way to do it and we have tried that, and the governor has promised to veto everything that we’ve put out there attempting to roll back his power.”
Beyond impeachment, Becker alleges the governor has committed a number of crimes. Among them: that DeWine illegally canceled and rescheduled the primary election.
Hours before the polls were set to open Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton signed an order preventing the polling places from opening. DeWine and Acton feared holding an in-person election would lead to the virus spreading.
Ohio primary election dates are set by the state legislature. Lawmakers unanimously approved a new primary election plan involving an all-mail vote conducted throughout all of April. Becker voted for that plan.
Becker also alleges the mask mandates at churches, public places and businesses are in violation of Ohioans’ civil liberties.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request that it block a California law restricting crowd sizes at church services.
Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote in the majority opinion that the church restrictions were level with social distancing requirements at other public gatherings. Given the lack of treatment, cure, vaccine or sufficient knowledge about the new disease, he wrote, it’s too early to deem the restrictions unconstitutional.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, the restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” he wrote.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the hometown of Rep. Paul Zeltwanger. He is from Mason.