I’m Not Dead . . . . I’m Just in Congress.

In Impeachment and Assassination, Professor Josh Chafetz makes the inventive argument that impeachment, at least presidential impeachment, is best viewed as a metaphorical form of political assassination.  Chafetz argues that impeachable offenses should be viewed as “assassinable” offenses, by which he means the type of offenses that warranted assassination in historical instances known to the Framers.  To illustrate the scope of such offenses, he provides a fascinating description of two examples that were foremost in the mind of Benjamin Franklin– the assassination of Julius Caesar and the execution of Charles I.

Chafetz’s provocative theory is challenged by Seth Tillman in The Originalist Who Came In From The Cold: A “New” View of the Incompatibility Clause, the Removal & Disqualification Clause, and the Religious Test Clause–A Response to Professor Josh Chafetz’s Impeachment & Assassination.  Tillman focuses on Chafetz’s claim that impeachment (and conviction) is the equivalent of “political death.”  Tillman argues that impeachment is unlike death, even metaphorically speaking.

I tend to agree with Tillman on this.  To begin, being a former president, even one who is a private citizen, is not quite political death.  How much like political death it is will depend on a variety of circumstances, of which impeachment is only one.  No president, of course, has ever been impeached and removed, but former President Clinton (impeached but not removed) seems to be enjoying quite an influential post-presidency, although he holds no formal office.

Moreover, as Chafetz acknowledges, the Constitution does not empower the Senate to disqualify anyone from holding state office.  Tillman points out that this means a disqualified official can serve in positions such as Governor or state legislator, offices which are not only significant in themselves but may involve the exercise of powers that affect the federal government (such as a Governor’s appointment of an interim US senator to fill a vacancy).  While the fact that disqualification is not applicable to state officers is understandable on federalism grounds, it tends to attenuate the “impeachment as political death” metaphor.

Tillman points to a number of other positions that a disqualified officer might hold; these include White House advisor (at least if one accepts the proposition that such an advisor is not an “officer” under the Appointments Clause), presidential elector, and delegate to an Article V convention to propose amendments (or to a state ratifying convention).  And, President Clinton might add, First Spouse.

Even more tellingly, as discussed in a prior post, a disqualified officer is still eligible to serve in Congress.  Indeed, a current Member of Congress, Representative Alcee Hastings, was formerly a federal judge who was impeached and removed from office (though not disqualified).  Hastings’ post-impeachment experience can hardly be called a political death.

Perhaps most importantly, the Constitution does not require that the Senate disqualify those who are impeached and convicted.  Thus, if the Senate were ever to remove a sitting President, it is free to decide that his “high crimes and misdemeanors” do not merit disqualification at all.  In that case, the former president would clearly suffer no “political death.”

All of which suggests that the “impeachment as political death” metaphor is considerably  overstated.  Tillman, however, is not content to stop there.  He contends that the Disqualification Clause does not authorize the Senate to disqualify anyone from future service as president (or vice president).  This contention I will address another day.

IS FORMER JUDGE PORTEOUS ELIGIBLE TO SERVE IN CONGRESS?

Article I provides that “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”  It has long been held by the Senate that disqualification is not an automatic consequence of conviction and removal, but an additional punishment that the Senate may impose in its discretion.  In the case of Judge Porteous, the Senate imposed disqualification for only the third time in history (the other instances were Judge Humphreys in 1862 and Judge Archbald in 1913).

Porteous, therefore, is disqualified from ever holding an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”  But what constitutes such an office?  Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Professor Somin expresses the view that Porteous is prohibited from serving in Congress, while Professor Volokh maintains that a Senator or Representative does not hold an office of “honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”

Volokh’s position is supported by Article II, section 1, clause 2, which prohibits any “Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” from serving as a presidential elector.  This suggests that a Member of Congress does not in fact hold a office of trust or profit as the Constitution uses that term.  More significantly, the Incompatible Offices Clause (Article I, section 6, clause 2) provides that “no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.”  As a textual matter, it is difficult to see how one could hold an office of honor, trust or profit under the United States (within the meaning of the Disqualification Clause) without simultaneously holding an “Office under the United States” within the meaning of the Incompatible Offices Clause.  The logical conclusion, therefore, would seem to be that a Member of Congress holds neither.

Somin’s position, on the other hand, seems to be based on the instinct that it simply would make no sense to disqualify an impeached and convicted official from serving in any executive or judicial position in the federal government, no matter how minor, but not to disqualify him or her from serving in Congress.  Somin does not offer a textual defense of this position, and, although other scholars seem to believe as he does, in most cases they appear to be making an assumption, rather than grappling with the actual text of the Disqualification Clause.  See, for example, Michael Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process 60 (1996) (suggesting that impeached and removed federal judge Alcee Hastings was able to subsequently serve in Congress only because the Senate had failed to disqualify him) and William McKay & Charles W. Johnson, Parliament and Congress 515 n.43 (2010) (same).  

In Democracy’s Privileged Few 280-81 n.68 (2007), Professor Josh Chafetz endorses the Volokh view and contends that those who read the Disqualification Clause as extending to congressional seats are guilty of a “sloppy” reading of the Constitution.  Seth Tillman, in his recent paper, The Originalist Who Came in From the Cold: A “New” View of the Incompatibility Clause, the Removal and Disqualification Clause, and the Religious Test Clause– A Response to Professor Josh Chafetz’s Impeachment and Assassination 17 n.35, indicates that the Volokh/Chafetz position “appears to be the majority view in legal academia today,” a view Tillman evidently shares.

There are a couple of possible arguments against the Volokh/Chafetz view.  The first is that it leads to a result that the Framers could not have intended.  Why allow the Senate to disqualify an officer from serving in any judicial or executive branch position, but not from serving in Congress?  

I think there are quite plausible responses to this question.  I would begin with the fact that the Constitution specifically empowers each house of Congress to expel its own members, but does not authorize it to disqualify the member from future service in Congress.  This was no accident– the Framers were well aware of the John Wilkes case in England, where a Member of Parliament was repeatedly expelled and then re-elected by his constituents.  The Framers were sympathetic to Wilkes and would not have wanted to foreclose an expelled Member of Congress from seeking to regain his seat (in fact, they considered, but ultimately did not adopt, a provision prohibiting expelling a member twice for the same offense).  See Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few 210-11.

Given this, it makes sense that the Disqualification Clause would not extend to congressional seats.  After all, if an expelled member cannot be disqualified despite having committed misconduct while in Congress, it would seem incongruous to disqualify a former executive or judicial officer from running for a congressional seat.  Moreover, the same democratic logic would argue in favor of allowing a state or local constituency to make the final determination as to whether it wanted to be represented by the former officer, with full knowledge of the fact that he (or she) had been impeached and removed.  Just as the particular constituency might disagree with the House or Senate’s expulsion decision, so it might disagree with the House’s decision to impeach and the Senate’s to convict.

Note that this argument is, if anything, even stronger if one accepts the minority view that Members of Congress themselves are subject to impeachment.  If the Framers did not want to prohibit a member from running for re-election after being expelled, it hardly makes sense that they would have a different view regarding impeachment.  Moreover, regardless of whether impeachment is available for Members or not, it seems unlikely that the Framers would have given the Senate the final word on whether a removed officer could run for a seat in the House.

A stronger argument against the Volokh/Chafetz position may be that it is inconsistent with how Congress has interpreted another provision of Article I, which provides that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust [under the United States], shall without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Price, or foreign State.”  This provision has been interpreted to apply to Members of Congress, and the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, 5 USC 342, which sets forth how foreign gifts and decorations may be accepted, applies to Members.

This interpretation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause does appear to be inconsistent with the Volokh/Chafetz position.  But the textual inferences discussed earlier still strongly suggest that a Member does not hold an “office of honor, trust or profit” under the United States.  Thus, it may simply be that the traditional interpretation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause has been mistaken.

In my judgment, Volokh and Chafetz appear to be correct.  A disqualified officer is not prohibited from running for Congress.  If former Judge Porteous can convince the voters to elect him, he could join former Judge Hastings on Capitol Hill. 

Judge Porteous and Impeachment for Conduct Prior to Federal Appointment

On December 8, the Senate voted to convict and remove from office U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous, who became only the eighth official (all of whom have been federal judges) in history to be impeached and convicted.  Porteous’s offenses stemmed from a corrupt relationship he developed while serving as a state judge before his appointment to the federal bench.  His conviction therefore constitutes a significant precedent with respect to an open question (previously discussed here) regarding the applicability of impeachment proceedings to conduct that pre-dates appointment.

Porteous’s lawyers argued that the charges against him should be rejected because they were largely based on “pre-federal conduct,” ie, activities which took place  before the judge was appointed to the federal bench.  They contended that “[i]n the history of this Republic, the United States Senate has never before removed a federal official, through the impeachment process, for ‘pre-federal’ conduct.”   The House Impeachment Managers, on the other hand, argued that “conduct which occurs prior to assuming federal office, particularly when the officeholder concealed such conduct during the confirmation process, is an appropriate basis for impeachment and removal from office.”  

There were four articles of impeachment against Porteous.  Articles I and II involved both Porteous’s conduct as a state judge and his conduct after his nomination and appointment to the federal bench.  However, it seems fair to note that Article II, in particular, appears to be predominantly based on pre-federal conduct.  Article IV, moreover, is entirely based on Porteous’s deception and/or failure to disclose information during the confirmation process.

The final vote on conviction was 96-0 on Article I, 69-27 on Article II, and 90-6 on Article IV (Article III is not relevant for present purposes).  Because Senators are not required to give reasons for their votes, one must be cautious in drawing conclusions about the legal precedent established by the conviction.  It seems clear, however, that the Porteous conviction stands, at a minimum, for the proposition that misconduct during the confirmation process, such as lying to or deceiving the Senate, may constitute a “high crime or misdemeanor.”  Moreover, it appears likely that those Senators who voted to convict on Article II believed that Porteous’s pre-federal conduct itself constituted, at least under the circumstances of that case, a high crime or misdemeanor.

Senate Panel Holds the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination Does Not Apply to an Impeachment Trial

Yesterday the Senate panel charged with conducting the impeachment trial of federal district judge G. Thomas Porteous issued an order disposing of certain pretrial motions.   Of particular note was the panel’s decision to reject Porteous’ motion to suppress his immunized testimony given before a special Fifth Circuit committee which investigates misconduct by federal judges.

The question presented, the Senate panel notes, is one of first impression, namely whether an impeachment trial is a “criminal case” within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on compelled self-incrimination.  It is a difficult question because the Constitution is notably ambiguous on this point.

On the one hand, a reader of the original Constitution would likely conclude that impeachment is a type, albeit a unique type, of criminal proceeding.  Impeachable offenses are defined in terms of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”   Impeachment is implicitly treated as a criminal proceeding in article II, where the President is granted power to “grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment,” and in article III, where it is stated that the “trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury.”  These exceptions would be unnecessary if impeachment were not, at least in some sense, a criminal proceeding.

On the other hand, it is difficult to square this conclusion with the language of the Bill of Rights.  The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in “all criminal prosecutions,” which, if applicable to impeachment, would nullify the impeachment process explicitly set forth in the original Constitution.  Similarly, though somewhat less clearly, the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment has been construed to apply to all criminal offenses, and would therefore be applicable to impeachment if it were considered a criminal proceeding.

In his book on impeachment, Raoul Berger surveyed these competing provisions and concluded that “the Framers might well have overlooked some lack of harmony in detail.”  In short, he believes that the Framers utilized the criminal terminology of the English impeachment process, but, by limiting the consequences of impeachment to the nonpenal ones of removal and disqualification, created a new type of proceeding that is essentially non-criminal in nature.  Michael Gerhardt and Charles Black argue that the impeachment process should be viewed as a hybrid or quasi-criminal type of proceeding.

The conclusions of these impeachment scholars inform the discussion, but do not necessarily answer the specific question presented to the Senate impeachment committee:  should impeachment be considered a criminal proceeding for purposes of the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment?  The committee seems to assume that Senate precedent rejecting the application of double jeopardy to an impeachment proceeding necessarily means that the self-incrimination clause is likewise inapplicable.  This does not necessarily follow.

Nonetheless, I tend to agree that the committee reached the correct result here.  Berger suggests the analogy between impeachment, designed to remove an unfit officer, and deportation, designed to remove an alien who is not entitled to remain the country.  Although the latter may entail painful consequences, it is not a criminal proceeding to which the self-incrimination privilege applies.  Similarly, to the extent that the privilege is designed to protect against coerced confessions or wrongful convictions in ordinary criminal cases, it would seem to have little relevance to an impeachment proceeding.  The Senate is entitled to consider Porteous’ immunized testimony.

More on Bybee Impeachment

           The National Law Journal has an interview today with Professor Michael Gerhardt, author of The Federal Impeachment Process, regarding the possibility of an impeachment of Judge Jay Bybee.  Gerhardt’s responses are appropriately tentative, given the uncharted territory involved: 

NLJ: May a judge be impeached for conduct committed before becoming a judge?

MG: You have to judge every case on its own facts. The question we have to look at is to what extent this might fit into our understanding of the impeachment process. With President Clinton, one part involved his alleged misconduct related to something he had done before he came into the presidency and another charge was lying under oath about conduct while he was president. The questions can get pretty complicated.

I think it’s actually a significant question in constitutional law — the extent to which someone may be held accountable for something they did before they got into the office they now hold. John Quincy Adams declared when he was in the House that he thought he could still be held accountable for things he had done as president.

*          *          *

I think that language in the Constitution could be read credibly here to support an inquiry into Judge Byee’s conduct or judgment while he was in the Justice Department. There may be enough support in original meaning or historical practice to suggest the House has legitimate authority to inquire at least into whether it has authority to impeach somebody under circumstances like this.

Could Congress Impeach Judge Bybee?

           Sunday’s New York Times editorializes that Congress should impeach Judge Jay Bybee, who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, for actions he took in his former position as head of the Office of Legal Counsel.  Specifically, the Times argues that OLC memos authored by Bybee and others regarding prisoner interrogations were “not an honest attempt to set the legal limits on interrogations, which was the authors’ statutory obligation. They were written to provide legal immunity for acts that are clearly illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values.” Accordingly, it concludes that Bybee isunfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution.” 

            It is not my intention here to rehash the arguments regarding the quality of OLC’s work.  Assuming that the OLC memos were as poorly reasoned and result-oriented as critics maintain, it is by no means obvious that these memos would constitute impeachable offenses.  One might reasonably conclude that the offenses charged by the Times are not “high crimes and misdemeanors” within the meaning of Article II, section 4 of the Constitution, but merely “maladministration” that is beyond the scope of that provision.   

            For present purposes, however, I will assume that Bybee’s role in authoring or approving various OLC memos falls within the outer limit of what Congress could reasonably find to be an impeachable offense.  This assumption leads us to questions of first impression. 

            Bybee did not commit the alleged misconduct while a federal judge.  There is no allegation that he has in any way misused his judicial power or acted improperly in his judicial capacity.  It is true that Bybee is charged with misusing his official position, but it was an entirely different official position, in a different branch of government, than the one he has now.  There is no precedent for impeaching an official based on misconduct committed in another position.

           

            In fact, as Professor Michael Gerhardt has noted: “As a general matter, it is noteworthy that no one has ever been impeached, much less removed from office, for something he or she did prior to assuming an impeachable position in the federal government.”  Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process 108 (1996).  Gerhardt nonetheless argues that there are circumstances in which impeachment based on pre-appointment misconduct is appropriate.  He notes that “[p]articularly in cases in which an elected or confirmed official has lied or committed a serious act of wrongdoing to get into their present position, the misconduct that was committed prior to entering office clearly bears on the integrity of the way in which the present officeholder entered office and the integrity of that official to remain in office.”  Id. 108-09.   

            If there is evidence that Bybee lied during his judicial confirmation hearings regarding the OLC interrogation memos, one might have a plausible case for impeaching him as a federal judge.  (Indeed, such deception would make a stronger case for impeachment than the underlying misconduct).  But in the absence of such evidence, this would seem a weak case for impeachment based on pre-appointment misconduct.  The underlying misconduct is at best a borderline impeachable offense.  Moreover, the job of a federal judge is quite different than that of the OLC.  Some argue that OLC should perform a quasi-judicial function within the executive branch, but this is hardly a universal understanding of its role.  Even if one believes that Bybee misconstrued the proper function of OLC, this hardly proves that he is unwilling or unable to faithfully perform his judicial role.  

            But wait.  It is true that Bybee didn’t commit the (allegedly) impeachable offense as a federal judge, but he was in a Senate-confirmed position at the time.  And the head of OLC is, like other civil officers of the United States, subject to impeachment.  Perhaps the question shouldn’t be whether Bybee can be impeached as a judge, but whether he can be impeached as the former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.  Can he? 

             Although it is often assumed that impeachment will not lie once an official leaves his or her office, this is in fact far from settled.  In fact, the House has previously determined that “resignation of the office does not prevent impeachment for crime or misdemeanor therein.”   House Manual § 174 (108th Cong.) (Parliamentarian’s Note).  Although the Senate has not convicted on the two occasions where the House impeached a former official (Blount and Belknap), these precedents do not stand for the proposition that the Congress lacks jurisdiction in such cases.  As Gerhardt observes, “there is a surprising consensus among commentators that resignation does not necessarily preclude impeachment and disqualification.”  Gerhardt, supra, at 79. 

            In short, it appears likely that Congress does have the power to impeach Bybee for actions he took in his role as the head of OLC.  Although it is seldom worth Congress’s while to conduct an impeachment trial for a former official, this is a matter of prudence, not constitutional power. 

            Suppose, however, Bybee were to be impeached and convicted for these matters.  Would this result in his removal as a federal judge?   This is another matter of first impression.  One could argue that the Constitution requires that any official convicted of a high crime or misdemeanor be removed from office.   Alternatively, one could argue that removal is required only if the Senate imposes the punishment of disqualification to hold and enjoy any federal office.  Conceivably, one could argue that Bybee could not be removed from his judgeship at all, since the impeachment would relate solely to his prior office and his disqualification would relate solely to future offices. 

            It seems unlikely that Congress will take up the Times’s invitation to impeach Judge Bybee.  But should it do so, plenty of thorny constitutional issues await.