By Carrie Sheffield
In a historic move, the Utah House of Representatives voted Monday afternoon Feb. 17 to begin impeachment proceedings against 4th District Judge Ray Harding Jr., who faces drug charges.
Harding, a 1978 graduate of the J. Rueben Clark law school at Brigham Young University, presides over several counties, including Utah.
By a vote of 66-9, House members approved the impeachment proceedings outlined in House Resolution 9. The process will begin as soon as rules governing the impeachment proceedings are approved by House members.
Harding was arrested July 13, for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, and later reportedly tested positive for traces of cocaine and heroin.
On Sept. 9, officials charged Harding with two third-degree felony counts of possession or use of a controlled substance. If convicted, he could face a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison for each count.
Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham suspended Harding from the bench July 15, pending the resolution of criminal charges. Harding continues to be on paid administrative leave, drawing his annual salary of $103,000 and has spent three months in a California drug-treatment facility.
This would be the first impeachment of a state official, legislative attorney Gay Taylor told the lawmakers.
Taylor said the House Judiciary Committee will examine evidence and listen to witnesses to determine if there are grounds for impeachment.
The committee”s findings would be brought to a full vote before the House. If approved by a two-thirds vote, the impeachment would be handed to the Senate where members would essentially act as 29 jurors in the case.
Harding could face removal from office and disqualification from holding further public office in the state, Taylor said.
“It is incumbent upon us to send a clear message to those who hold such a high position,” Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, said. “I do feel for his personal losses, but he has breached public trust.”
“A terrible incident took place, and there was definitely a violation of public trust,” Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, said. “I support taking advantage of the ability to expedite the (impeachment) procedure.”
Dissenting House members said the vote for impeachment proceedings would be damaging to Harding and costly to the state.
“He”s lost his license, his family and he”s still battling with addiction,” Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo said. “I don”t think there”s a need to drive another nail into the coffin and spend the state”s money to do so. Let”s be humane.”
Rep. James A. Ferrin, R-Orem, said drug tests had proved inconclusive and a vote for impeachment proceedings now is a hasty decision.
“I”m really troubled that the man who has allegedly done these terrible things should still draw a salary from the state,” Ferrin said. “But in my mind, there is some doubt as to the validity of all the allegations. I”m uncomfortable jumping to conclusions here.”
The impeachment would require a special session of the Utah Legislature and is expected to last three weeks to a month. During that time, lawmakers could be paid the full $120-a-day salary plus expenses for 30 days. After that the compensation would only be expenses, Taylor said.
The Judicial Conduct Commission has recommended to the Utah Supreme Court that Harding be removed from the bench, said commission member Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne. The Supreme Court has not made a decision.