As you know, on February 9 the Senate voted 56-44 to proceed with the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, finding that the former president “is subject to the jurisdiction of a court of impeachment for acts committed while President of the United States, notwithstanding the expiration of his term in that office.” This allows the trial to proceed, although some argue that there is no reason to continue since it is clear there cannot be enough votes to convict. After all, if a senator has concluded that there is no jurisdiction over the defendant, she logically cannot convict (or so it is argued).
The same issue arose in the 1876 trial of former secretary of war William Belknap, who resigned from office just hours before the House impeached him for corruption. The Senate then debated whether it had jurisdiction to try the articles of impeachment against “William W. Belknap, late Secretary of War.” By a vote of 37-29, almost exactly the same percentage breakdown as in Tuesday’s vote in the Trump trial (by my calculation the Belknap majority was .00060606 larger), the Senate voted in favor of jurisdiction. See Jonathan Turley, Senate Trials and Factional Disputes: Impeachment as a Madisonian Device, 49 Duke L. J. 1, 55 (1999).
Belknap’s lawyers then argued that the trial should not proceed. They contended the jurisdictional vote showed the respondent had been “substantially acquitted” because more than one-third of the Senate had by their votes “declared and affirmed their opinion to be that said plea of said respondent . . . was sufficient in law to prevent the Senate . . . from taking further cognizance of said articles of impeachment.” 3 Hinds’ Precedents §2461. The Senate, however, rejected this motion to dismiss and proceeded to conduct a lengthy trial (which nonetheless resulted in Belknap’s acquittal almost entirely based on the jurisdictional issue).
There are two reason why the Senate, as Professor Turley put it, “wisely rejected” Belknap’s effort to stop the trial. See Turley, 49 Duke L. J. at 55 n.240. First, even if Belknap’s acquittal were inevitable, there is value in conducting an impeachment trial that the Senate has determined it has the constitutional authority to conduct. As House manager George Hoar (later a prominent senator) argued in the Belknap case, holding a trial has value in itself, allowing for the airing of charges by “any responsible accuser” and the conduct of a “judicial trial” or “inquest” with a “process for the discovery of concealed evidence.” See Thomas Berry, Late Impeachment: An In-Depth Account of the Arguments at the Belknap Trial (Part IV) (Feb. 7, 2021). An impeachment trial can demonstrate the guilt or innocence of the accused, expose official misconduct, and serve as an affirmation of the standards of conduct expected for those entrusted with public office. See Turley, 49 Duke L. J. at 56 (explaining that “a trial of Belknap was needed as a corrective political measure” and “[r]egardless of outcome, the Belknap trial addressed the underlying conduct and affirmed core principles at a time of diminishing faith in government”).
Second, it is not inevitable (at least in theory) that a senator who votes against jurisdiction will also vote for acquittal. To see why, let us look at the matter from the perspective of our hypothetical conscientious senator, Xena. Senator Xena has sworn to do impartial justice in the impeachment trial of former president Trump and that is what she intends to do. Thus, she will approach the question of whether the Senate has jurisdiction to try a former president without fear or favor, uninfluenced by any constitutionally irrelevant considerations.
You may believe that such a senator could reach only one result, but most scholars who have studied the question (particularly those who did so before January 6) would acknowledge that it is, as Professor Kalt observed in his 2001 article, a “close and unsettled question.” I have made clear my view (which even Senator Cruz now shares) that the stronger argument favors late impeachment, but for purposes of this exercise we will assume Xena reaches a different conclusion. Continue reading “What Would Xena Do? A Conscientious Senator Navigates the Impeachment Trial.”