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SD Senate overrules Lt. Gov. Rhoden, suspends Rapid City Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller

Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller on Jan. 26 was suspended from the Senate indefinitely, with the discipline stemming from a conversation with a staffer involving "medical freedom."

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Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, a Republican from Rapid City, speaks in her defense during a meeting of the Senate on Jan. 26, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Senate is forming a Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion to “investigate the conduct” of Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, a Republican from Rapid City. She is suspended from her duties as a senator until the committee ends its investigation.

The suspension of Frye-Mueller required a suspension of the Senate’s normal rules, a motion which Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who presides over the body, declared was “out of order” and flew in the face of due process.

"In this case, by suspending the rules, we are denying a member a longstanding legal principle in the United States of America: due process," Rhoden said. "We've put the cart ahead of the horse."

Still, the bulk of the Senate was not swayed by arguments — made by Rhoden and Sen. Tom Pischke, a Republican from Dell Rapids — that suspending Frye-Mueller prior to the investigation would be an unprecedented move and effectively disenfranchise her constituents in District 30.

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Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, the top Republican in the Senate, speaks during a meeting of the Senate on Jan. 26, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

The Senate overruled Rhoden’s motion and, next, approved the suspension of rules and formation of the select committee by a vote of 27-6, with two senators excused.

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“This motion has gotten a lot of serious from the members of both our body, meaning the Republicans, as well as discussions with the folks in the Democratic caucus,” said Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison.

In a short press conference on Jan. 26, Frye-Mueller explained some of the circumstances surrounding the stripping of her committees, which occurred as a preliminary disciplinary measure during the meeting of the Senate on Jan. 25.

“To date, I have not received any formal written complaint or charge against me," Frye-Mueller said. "However, it has come to my attention that the issue may involve a conversation I had with staff, where I promoted my well-known stance of medical freedom and the ability of individuals to choose medical treatment for themselves."

She reiterated her lack of involvement in any information-gathering discussions on the Senate floor.

The Rapid City senator on Jan. 25 entered into the public record a bill to "prohibit the imposition of additional immunization requirements on children."

Frye-Mueller, a business owner, was first elected to the legislature in 2016, serving two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2020.

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Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, listens during a Senate Health and Human Services committee hearing on Jan. 25, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Legislative rules require avoiding “improper behavior” and refraining from “conduct that is unbecoming to the Legislature,” among members. In the Senate, breaking those rules can result in the formation of a Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion, a nine-member committee tasked with investigating this sort of misconduct.

The specific nature of the action requiring disciplinary measures, though described by Pischke as a “she-said, she-said manner” and framed by President Pro Tempore Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, and Crabtree as tantamount to an internal workplace manner, remains unclear

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“We have the ability to protect the decorum of the body and this motion is appropriate. It provides a due process opportunity,” Schoenbeck said. “It does not remove the senator from office. It's what any employer would do similarly situated if addressing these issues.”

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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