Congress, the Supreme Court, and Impeachment


President Trump has remarked that if the House were to pass articles of impeachment against him that did not properly charge him with a crime (Orange Man Bad isn’t even a misdemeanor), he might go to the Supreme Court seeking to have the impeachment quashed. Various pundits and academics have tut-tut-ed and stated that the President doesn’t understand how impeachment works. Do they?

Alan Dershowitz has a piece over at The Hill suggesting that the President may not be too far off base.

Were Congress to try to impeach and remove a president without alleging and proving any such crime, and were the president to refuse to leave office on the ground that Congress had acted unconstitutionally, there would indeed be such a constitutional crisis. And Supreme Court precedent going back to Marbury v. Madison empowers the justices to resolve conflicts between the executive and legislative branches by applying the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.

Recall that when a president has been impeached by the House, the Supreme Court’s chief justice presides at his Senate trial and the senators take a special oath. This special oath requires each senator to swear or affirm that “in all things pertaining to the trial … [to] do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the law” (italics added).

If the House were to impeach for a non-crime, the president’s lawyer could make a motion to the chief justice to dismiss the case, just as a lawyer for an ordinary defendant can make a motion to dismiss an indictment that did not charge a crime. The chief justice would be asked to enforce the senatorial oath by dismissing an impeachment that violated the words of the Constitution. There is no assurance that the chief justice would rule on such a motion, but it is certainly possible.

No one should criticize President Trump for raising the possibility of Supreme Court review, especially following Bush v. Gore, the case that ended the 2000 election. Many of the same academics ridiculed the notion that the justices would enter the political thicket of vote-counting. But they did and, in the process, weakened the “political question” doctrine. The case for applying the explicit constitutional criteria governing impeachment is far more compelling than was the case for stopping the Florida recount.

So no one should express partisan certainty regarding President Trump’s suggestion that the Supreme Court might well decide that impeaching a president without evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors is unconstitutional.

Read the whole thing.

1 thought on “Congress, the Supreme Court, and Impeachment

  1. I think a perhaps major misunderstanding in many people’s thinking on impeachment is that they think “high” modifies only “crimes.” Since misdemeanor has come to mean any non-felony crime, many seem to believe a US President could be subject to impeachment over a traffic ticket or petty vandalism. So impeachment over very slight inconveniences to those investigating a “crime,” even though the crime never occurred, may seem somehow appropriate.

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