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The Senate’s Authority to Punish or Expel Roy Moore: A Response to Stan Brand

Former House Counsel Stan Brand has written this article in Politico entitled “Why the Law Might Not Allow the Senate to Expel Roy Moore.” I am working on a longer piece dealing with jurisdictional and prudential limits on the Senate Ethics Committee, but I want to take this opportunity to comment on Brand’s article. In brief, I agree with Brand on the bottom line (i.e., it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Senate to punish, much less expel, Moore for his alleged misconduct), but I think a little more precision with regard to the constitutional and legal issues would be helpful.

Moore, of course, is the Republican candidate in the Alabama special senate election to be held on December 12. For the last month or so (it seems longer), the main issue in that election has been Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with a number of teenage girls (at least one as young as 14) about 30 years ago. If Moore should win the election, senate leaders have suggested that he will nonetheless have to face these accusations before the Senate itself.

As Brand notes, it is clear that the law does not permit the Senate to “exclude” Moore, that is, to refuse to seat him on the grounds that he lacks the constitutional qualifications to serve in the Senate. Moore has the constitutionally prescribed qualifications (age, citizenship and residency) and so the Senate must seat him.

But the Senate also has the power to punish any senator for “disorderly behavior” and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate, a senator may be expelled. Brand suggests that these powers may not extend to Moore’s case for three reasons: (1) Moore’s misconduct occurred in a prior Congress; (2) Moore’s conduct occurred before he entered the Senate; and (3) Moore’s conduct was known to the electorate at the time that it (hypothetically) elected him.

The first of these points is not well taken. It is true that there is language in early precedents suggesting that members cannot be punished or expelled for conduct occurring in prior congresses. (Professor Turley alluded to this idea as well). To the extent that this position was ever seriously entertained, it made more sense for the House (all the members of which stand for election every two years) than for the Senate, a continuing body consisting of members elected for six year terms. But in any event, both bodies have long recognized that they can punish or expel members for conduct occurring in prior congresses. House rules, for example, allow its ethics committee to investigate matters going back to the third previous congress and longer if the committee determines the prior conduct is directly related to an alleged violation occurring in more recent congress. House Rule XI (3) (b) (3). The Senate has declined to adopt any statute of limitations at all.

The second point is far more substantial. As far as I know, neither the House nor the Senate has ever disciplined, much less expelled, a member for conduct preceding his or her first election to the legislative body. On a number of occasions, the Senate has declined the opportunity to take cognizance of alleged misconduct occurring before first election. The only question is whether this precedent reflects a jurisdictional limit (i.e., a constitutional limit on the Senate’s power) or merely a strong aversion to using the Senate’s power in such situations. It should also be noted that whether the limit is jurisdictional or prudential, there is some precedent that a senator can waive the limit by asking for an investigation of his own conduct. See Josh Chafetz, Congress’s Constitution 252 (2017) (discussing the 1904 case of Senator Charles Dietrich, who asked the Senate to appoint a committee to investigate allegations that he behaved corruptly in his prior position as governor of Nebraska). This is a point that Moore’s lawyers will want to keep in mind (as perhaps Senator Al Franken’s should have as well).

Finally, Brand’s third point alludes to the “Wilkes principle,” which we have discussed in this blog on prior occasions (see here, here, and here). Essentially, it means that a legislative body should not expel a member for conduct that was fully known to the voters at the time of his or her most recent election. The voters, as Benjamin Cassady puts it, have the power to grant an “electoral pardon” with respect to a candidate’s prior misconduct. See Benjamin Cassady, “You’ve Got Your Crook, I’ve Got Mine,” 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 209, 218 (2014).

Like Professor Chafetz, I doubt that this limit is jurisdictional in nature. See Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few 210-12 (2007). Although ordinarily it would be “impermissibly undemocratic” for a legislative body to expel a member after his or her constituents have indicated either forgiveness or approval of the conduct in question, the framers of the Constitution declined to prohibit expulsion twice for the same offense. In truly extraordinary circumstances, therefore, it may be permissible for the legislative body to expel a member for conduct known to the voters. In addition, there is always the possibility that “new” information not available to the voters will emerge after the election. At the moment, however, it seems very unlikely that the Senate could expel Moore without violating the Wilkes principle.

In short, while reasonable people can disagree whether the Senate has the constitutional authority to expel (or even punish) Moore for the conduct in question, there can be no doubt that the Senate would have to go well beyond any of its existing precedents to take such action.

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