The Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration Hosts Non-Partisan Seminar on Impeachment

The Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration Hosts Non-Partisan Seminar on Impeachment

The Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration Hosts Non-Partisan Seminar on Impeachment

The topic of impeachment is headline news these days, but what the process entails, and what the Constitution says about impeachment, isn’t as widely known. Striving to provide some clarity on the matter, the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration (LPS) hosted “How to Impeach A President: A Seminar on the Constitutional Remedy of Last Resort in the Age of Trump” on November 21. “As a College focused on advocating for justice, the LPS Department felt that it was important to provide opportunities for our students to learn about and discuss impeachment on a level much higher than is available to them from current media coverage alone,” said Heath Grant, Ph.D., Deputy Chair of LPS. “This seminar was non-political in nature. It provided the important historical and constitutional underpinnings for our students to be informed consumers of the very somber events occurring right now in our times.”

Establishing Constitutional Rules
The impeachment and removal process was included by the nation’s founding fathers in the United States Constitution to protect the American people from serious misconduct by federal officers serving in the judicial and executive branches of government. Providing insight on the constitutional grounds for impeachment, Michael Hiller, a former Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay, and Managing Principal at Hiller, PC, explained how Britain’s Parliament served as model for the United States Congress. “Our House of Representatives, like their House of Commons, draft the articles of impeachment [charges] and decide on impeachment,” said Hiller. “The Senate, their House of Lords, is where impeachment is tried,” and in order to convict a federal officer, there needs to be two-thirds majority vote from the Senate on at least one article of impeachment.

Hiller explaining the steps for impeachment
Hiller explaining the steps for impeachment 

Discussing the standards for impeachment, Hiller stated that in Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, it states that federal officers are removed from office if impeached for, and convicted of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. “The framers of the constitution were deeply concerned that people in Congress would use the impeachment process as a basis to harm political opponents,” said Hiller, expanding on the three terms. “Treason against the United States consists only in levying war against them [the U.S.] or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. That means you cannot be convicted of treason and impeached if there’s no active declaration of war against an enemy state,” said Hiller. “Bribery was regarded as an abuse of power by a person in public office in order to obtain a private benefit rather than in the pursuit of the public interest.” And, high crimes and misdemeanors, Hiller explained, were considered to be public crimes against society. “It’s something that someone did wrong that caused some sort of public injury, some real harm directed at society.”

Impeaching President Andrew Johnson
With the rules laid out, featured speakers Scott Woller, Senior Counsel at Hiller, PC, and Fatima Afia ’11, a John Jay alumna and Associate at Hiller, PC, informed the audience on the three U.S. presidents that have faced the impeachment process, what the grounds for impeachment were, and whether they were removed from office.

Andrew Johnson, who became President of the U.S. after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, vetoed reconstruction legislation that would give rights and citizenship to freed slaves, making him unpopular among members of Congress. “After two failed attempts to impeach him, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act which said that the President could not appoint or remove officials from his cabinet without Senate approval,” explained Woller. “This was specifically designed to trap Johnson, because when he became President he inherited most of Lincoln’s cabinet appointees, several of which he wanted out. And, Johnson took the bait.” Woller went on to say that Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, effectively violating the Tenure of Office Act and giving the House a basis to impeach him. While the House did vote to impeach Johnson, the Senate went on to acquit him.

Woller telling the story of Johnson’s impeachment
Woller telling the story of Johnson’s impeachment

Impeaching President Richard Nixon
Woller then gave insight into Richard Nixon, the Watergate scandal that led to his impeachment investigation, and his eventual resignation. “When Nixon was reelected in 1972, he was elected by one of the largest majorities in U.S. history, only losing one state,” said Woller, but during his campaign, members of his reelection committee broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate offices, wiretapped the phones and stole documents. “There was suspicion that the White House was involved because one of the burglars was on the payroll of Nixon’s reelection committee,” said Woller, adding that with further investigation “it was discovered that Nixon’s aides had ran a massive campaign of political sabotage.”

And while Nixon denied any involvement, in 1973 the Senate established a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities with “the purpose of investigating the events surrounding Watergate,” explained Woller. Soon after, several of Nixon’s top officials resigned and Nixon’s involvement in Watergate was revealed. “In public hearings, former White House counsel John Dean testified to the ongoing White House cover up of Watergate and admitted paying hush money to some of the burglars. And then, another official revealed that Nixon had been recording all his conversations in the Oval Office. This was a significant revelation.” The committee and special prosecutor subpoenaed the White House to turn over the tapes, but Nixon refused. Following a Supreme Court decision, Nixon was obligated to turn over the tapes including the “smoking gun tape” where in it he orders a cover up of the Watergate burglaries. The House Judiciary Committee voted to bring three articles of impeachment against Nixon: Obstruction of Justice, Abuse of Power, and Defiance of Subpoenas. But before the full House could vote on whether to impeach him, Nixon resigned from office.

Impeaching President Bill Clinton
Directing attention to Bill Clinton, Afia spoke of how the partisan divide in Washington helped fuel his impeachment. “Republicans and Democrats did not get along during the ’90s. There was a lot of anger on both sides of the aisle,” she said. After the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans took control of both the House and Senate. That same year, while the Clintons were under investigation by the Office of Independent Counsel for real estate investments—later known as the Whitewater investigations—Paula Jones, a former state employee in Arkansas sues Clinton for sexual harassment. In 1997, the case would make its way up to the Supreme Court, and on the witness list was Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern who had admitted to a “friend” that she was having a sexual relationship with Clinton. “For months, this friend was recording everything Lewinsky was telling her about her relationship with the President,” said Afia, and the friend turned the tapes over to Jones’ attorneys and Kenneth Starr, the Special Prosecutor handling the Whitewater investigation. “Jones’ lawyers are trying to make a case about there being a pattern of sexual abuse, so they subpoena Lewinsky. But she signs an affidavit saying there’s never been a sexual relationship between her and the President,” said Afia. “When Starr hears the tapes of the recorded conversations, where Lewinsky is clearly admitting her relationship with the President, he knows she’s perjured herself,” explained Afia, making note that the tapes helped expand Starr’s case against Clinton. “She was threatened with being prosecuted for perjury and eventually reaches an immunity deal with Starr’s team, agreeing to testify that she did indeed have a relationship with the President.”

Afia providing details on the Clinton impeachment
Afia providing details on the Clinton impeachment

In October, 1998 the House begins impeachment proceedings and brings forth two articles of impeachment: Perjury and Obstruction of Justice. “Perjury is brought under the high crimes and misdemeanors; and with it, it has to be clear that the person knowingly made a false statement,” said Afia, explaining that in Clinton’s grand jury testimony during the Jones case, he stated he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky. Meanwhile, “obstruction of justice is defined as intentional interference with the orderly administration of law and justice. Starr alleges Clinton instructed Lewinsky to submit a sworn statement, the signed affidavit, and falsely deny a relationship between them.” In 1999, the Senate trial begins. “The President’s counsel argues that although morally reprehensible, Clinton’s conduct did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense as it concerns only his private life and not his fitness to be President.” Clinton was acquitted five weeks later.

Returning to the podium, Hiller ended the discussion by drawing parallels between the three impeachments and the current impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump. “This seminar was all about the significance of what’s going on now and how best we can understand and get perspective on the process.”