Monday, November 11, 2019

Understanding Impeachment

There is so much nonsense spouted about impeachment these days, whether deliberate obfuscation or unknowingly, that you might find these items useful. (The most basic sources, from the Constitution, are Article II, Section 4 (impeachment power), Art. I, Sec. 2, Clause 5 (possessed by the House), Art. I, Sec. 3, Cl. 6 (trial in Senate). You are spared additional footnotes, though specific citations can be provided if desired.)

This material is hoped, intended and believed to be accurate, but does not purport to be, and is not, either a "legal opinion" or "scholarship."

There are three sections to which these links can take you: (1) The Obligation to Impeach, (2) Impeachment Standard Not "Illegality," and (3) Trump Has Violated the Law. [Photo credit: Wikimedia.]

The Obligation to Impeach. Every president, House and Senate member, and federal judge has sworn to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution requires each branch (legislative, executive and judicial) to maintain the balance of power among the three branches and prevent constitutional violations by the other two.

Thus, it can be argued the House has a constitutional obligation to begin an impeachment inquiry when there is reason to believe a president may have said or done things that precedent suggests constitute “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

The Congress has no more constitutional right to evade this responsibility, to fail to exercise this specifically granted power, than it has a right to fail to exercise its power to take the census every ten years. It certainly cannot refuse to start an impeachment inquiry because it might be politically harmful to the majority party in the House, or because the president may fail to win reelection. Nor can it fail to impeach because the Senate is unlikely to convict, any more than a grand jury can fail to indict because of the possibility the trial jury may be biased in favor of the accused.

Why? Because there are more reasons for the impeachment power than the potential removal of a specific president. Impeachment is designed to maintain for the future both (1) the standards of presidential conduct required by the founders and (2) exercise of the checks and balances the Constitution compels between the Legislative and Executive branches.

Impeachment Standard Not “Illegality.” President Trump’s defenders have altered their arguments as facts evolved – from, in effect, “he didn’t do it,” to “he may have done it, but he did nothing wrong,” to “he may have exercised bad judgment and done something wrong, but he did nothing illegal,” to “it can’t have been illegal because there was no quid-pro-quo,” to “even if it was illegal, and there was a quid-pro-quo, it is not an impeachable offense.”

As “Late Night” host Seth Meyers would say, “It’s time for a closer look.”

The founders modeled their constitutional standard for impeachment on British practice, which had its origins in 1341. Articles of impeachment in Great Britain included such things as “arbitrary and tyrannical government,” “procuring offices for persons who were unfit, and unworthy of them,” “squandering away the public treasure,” “improprieties in office,” “gross maladministration,” “corruption in office,” “neglect of duty,” excessive drinking and cursing that created “the highest scandal . . . on the kingdom.”

The British practice was to treat impeachment as a remedy separate from the process and standards of the criminal law and to include conduct not expressly recognized as “illegal.”

Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s language is influenced, but not bound, by British history. But American history is almost identical. The writings of Constitutional Convention members Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and James Madison indicate they believed impeachment did not require criminal offences. Nothing in the records of the states’ ratification of the Constitution indicate they believed impeachment was limited to criminal offenses. Of the first 13 impeachments by the House since 1789 (mostly of judges), at least 10 included charges that did not involve criminal law. Finally, Congress has never attempted to define “impeachment” in Title 18 of the U.S. Code (criminal code).

So far, three U.S. presidents have been impeached (Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton) and a fourth (President Trump) is undergoing an impeachment inquiry. None, so far, has been removed from office following the Senate trial. (President Johnson was saved by one vote; President Nixon resigned before his seemingly inevitable formal impeachment.)

Each presidential impeachment has involved some article dealing with other than criminal illegality.

As discussed in ”Trump’s High Crimes and Misdemeansors,” October 31, 2019, President Andrew Johnson’s tenth article of impeachment charged “That the President of the United States, unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof, and of the harmony and courtesies which ought to exist and be maintained between the executive and legislative branches of the Government of the United States . . . [did] make and declare, with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces . . . amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled . . ..”

The first of the Articles of Impeachment regarding President Nixon included: “[Nixon] has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice . . .. [He has] engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such illegal entry [into Democratic National Committee headquarters]; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities. “ (This is followed by nine examples.)

Article II, par. 5, alleged that “he knowingly misused the executive power by interfering with agencies of the executive branch, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation . . . and the Central Intelligence Agency.” Article III charged that he “has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives . . ..”

President Bill Clinton’s third article of impeachment included, after citing 7 specific items, “In all of this, [Clinton] has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, [and] has betrayed his trust as President . . ..”

Taken together, the evidence is overwhelming that the validity of an article of impeachment does not turn on whether a "law" has been violated. Thus, even if it were true, as some Trump defenders contend, that "he has done nothing illegal" it does not follow that, therefore, he cannot and should not be impeached.

But wait, even if one insists that a violation of law is a requirement for impeachment . . .

Trump Has Violated the Law. Although unnecessary for impeachment, for a response to those who argue “he did nothing illegal” or “there was no quid-pro-quo” it seems clear he did violate the law, and that the law he violated does not require proof of a “quid-pro-quo.”

The law involved is contained in Section 30121 of Title 52, United States Code (“Voting and Elections”).

The relevant words are, “It shall be unlawful for . . . a person to solicit . . . or receive . . . from a foreign national ["a . . . thing of value . . . in connection with a Federal . . . election"].

(The primary subsection is Sec. 30121(a)(2). The [bracketed] words are from subsection 30121(a)(1)(A) because Sec. 30121(a)(2) defines what cannot be received as that which was "described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1).")

Thing of Value. Given the quantity of confirming testimony regarding the range of ways that Trump displayed his desire to obtain dirt on former Vice President, and candidate for president, Joe Biden, there can be no doubt he considered such information “a thing of value in connection with a Federal election.”

Solicitation. Notes from Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky included Trump’s now-infamous line, “I would like to ask you to do us a favor, though.” It turns out there was more than one “favor” requested, but one is enough to clearly establish “solicitation.”

Quid-Pro-Quo. Note that the law does not require a quid-pro-quo. So even if there had been no quid-pro-quo that would have been irrelevant to whether Sec. 30121 had been violated. Clearly, it would not have been a defense. But for whatever relevance it may have, it seems to have clearly been the impression of many of those who have testified before Congress that a quid-pro-quo was understood by both presidents.

Without exploring yet another possible crime, the existence of a quid-pro-quo, while irrelevant to Section 30121, may be very relevant to a charge of bribery.

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