Can Governor Northam be Impeached?

No.

Perhaps I should elaborate. Article IV, section 17 of the Virginia Constitution (adopted in 1971) provides: “The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, judges, members of the State Corporation Commission, and all officers appointed by the Governor or elected by the General Assembly, offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor may be impeached by the House of Delegates and prosecuted before the Senate, which shall have the sole power to try impeachments.”

This language is identical to that contained in the Virginia Constitution of 1902, except that the latter referred to the “State” rather than the “Commonwealth.” The reference to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” language also contained in the U.S. Constitution, dates back to the Virginia Constitution of 1830, which provided: “The Governor, the Judges of the Court of Appeals and Superior Courts, and all others offending against the State, either by maladministration, corruption, neglect of duty, or any other high crime or misdemeanor, shall be impeachable by the House of Delegates; such impeachment to be prosecuted before the Senate, which shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.”

It is clear that Governor Northam has not committed “malfeasance in office, corruption or neglect of duty.” This leaves “other high crime or misdemeanor” as the only charge that conceivably could be brought against him for the offending conduct (which, in case you have been under a rock for the past 48 hours, consists of offensive and racist photos on his medical school yearbook page in 1984).

The term “high crime and misdemeanor” as used in the U.S. Constitution is broad and, as we have discussed before, not necessarily limited to conduct while in office. There is precedent for the proposition (again, at the federal level) that conduct predating the office in question may constitute a high crime or misdemeanor if the misconduct related to a different office and/or can be causally linked to the gaining of the current office. Thus, for example, if an officeholder were to attain office by corruptly rigging an election, there is a strong argument that this could provide the basis for impeachment and removal.

In Northam’s case, one would have to argue that his failure to reveal his prior misbehavior, decades prior to his election as governor, constituted a fraud on the electorate that resulted in his attaining the governorship. Not only would that mean that every untruth told during a political campaign would be potentially impeachable, but that an officeholder could be impeached simply for failing to volunteer damaging information.

To be sure, impeachment has both legal/judicial and political attributes, and the latter is reflected in the “awful discretion which a court of impeachments must necessarily have” such that it “can never be tied down by such strict rules, either in the delineation of the offence by the prosecutors, or in the construction of it by the judges, as in common cases serve to limit the discretion of courts in favour of personal security.” The Federalist No. 65 (Hamilton). But to extend that discretion so far as to encompass any distasteful behavior at any point in an officeholder’s life would be to disregard entirely the judicial aspects of the proceeding and to make impeachment little more than a measure of political popularity.

It is difficult to draw a precise line as to when conduct preceding an officeholder’s tenure should be considered potentially impeachable. But non-criminal conduct that occurred decades before taking office cannot be close to that line.

 

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