The Arkansas House of Representatives acquitted itself well last week.
The members expelled one of their own, and did so by an overwhelming 88-4 vote.
It took more than a year to get to that point, but when they did, a significant majority of House members did the right thing.
That performance should not be overlooked in these days when others in positions of power appear to have completely lost sight of what it means to do the right thing.
The question for the Arkansas House on Friday was whether Mickey Gates, a Hot Springs representative charged with failing to pay state taxes, should keep the House seat he had held since 2015.
Gates was a three-term House member who won re-election to his last term after he was arrested in June 2018.
He initially pleaded not guilty to six felony counts of failing to pay more than $259,000 in income taxes from 2003 to 2017. Colleagues encouraged him to resign then, but he resisted.
Gates continued to resist calls for his resignation even after accepting a plea deal this past June. That's when he pleaded no contest to a single felony charge of failing to file a tax return, accepted probation and promised to pay $74,789 in back taxes.
The no-contest plea and Gates' continued refusal to resign finally set Friday's historic expulsion vote in motion.
The vote was historic for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the fact that the last time a member of the Arkansas House was expelled was in 1837 in the early days of statehood.
Then-Speaker of the House John Wilson stabbed another member to death during a floor debate over wolf bounties.
The speaker was expelled and tried for murder. A jury later found him "guilty of excusable homicide" in one of the more colorful tales from Arkansas' raucous past. (For more details, look up the Wilson-Anthony duel in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas.)
Neither the nature of Gates' tax-related offense nor last week's House reaction will be so long remembered. But both matter to present-day Arkansas, where state legislators are still trying to rebuild a reputation tarnished in recent years by six former House and Senate members being convicted or pleading guilty in connection with a corruption scheme.
Although Gates' troubles are not related to that long-running federal investigation, the state charges against him further cast a bad light on the Legislature.
Significantly, Gates is a Republican. He was turned out by a Republican-dominated House under Republican leadership. The resolution to remove Gates was filed by none other than House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.
Shepherd was slow to call for Gates' resignation but joined the effort after Gates' no-contest plea.
He filed the resolution in September under Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, which allows either chamber of the General Assembly to expel a member with a two-thirds vote, and called the House Caucus together for the pivotal vote.
Shepherd said from the floor Friday that the House has the power to expel a member "for any reason that we see fit," although he also cited a 2019 law that precludes anyone who has been found guilty or pleaded guilty or no contest to a "public trust crime" from holding state office.
Gates maintained that he has not been found guilty of a crime and won't be, if he adheres to terms of his probation.
His no-contest plea to a crime nevertheless warranted his removal.
Shepherd encouraged his colleagues to ask themselves: "What are our standards? What kind of a House are we going to be? How do we want the people of Arkansas to view us?"
His personal motivation to remove Gates, Speaker Shepherd said, came out of his "sense of duty to the House and the people of Arkansas."
As he had when he first became speaker, Shepherd again asked that House members "hold ourselves to the highest standards of conduct and ethics."
Most did, voting 88-4 vote to oust Gates.
Gates and three other Republicans voted against his removal.
The remaining seven House members, four Republicans and three Democrats, did not vote. One other seat in the 100-member House is currently vacant.
Commentary on 10/16/2019
Print Headline: Drawing a line