If the Democrats take the House, they’ll impeach Justice Kavanaugh, President Trump warned at a mass rally in Iowa last week. “Impeach, for what? For what?” Trump demanded. For perjury, most likely: “If we find lies about assault against women,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D.-Ill.) one of several House Judiciary Committee members calling for renewed investigation, “then we should proceed to impeach.”
I’m not the newly-minted Justice’s biggest fan. From the start, I thought Kavanaugh was a lousy pick for the Court: weak on the Fourth Amendment and unreasonably fond of extraconstitutional privileges for the president. I’ve also argued, at great length, that we ought to impeach federal officers more frequently than we do. That goes for Supreme Court Justices as well. The Framers thought impeachment could serve as a valuable check on abuses of judicial power: that we’ve managed to impeach just one member of the “high court” in 230 years is pretty anemic.
All that said, I find the case for impeaching Justice Kavanaugh uncompelling, for the reasons that follow.
It’s true that there’s ample precedent for impeaching federal judges for perjury. Our last five judicial impeachments were based on charges of lying under oath.
Here’s a brief rundown of each case: in 1986, the House impeached, and the Senate removed, Judge Harry E. Claiborne (D. Nev.) for filing false tax returns under penalty of perjury (Claiborne had been convicted of those offenses earlier that year, becoming the first sitting federal judge to be incarcerated). Three years later, the Senate removed two more judges for lying under oath. One, the inauspiciously surnamed Walter L. Nixon (S.D. Miss.), was serving five years in prison for lying to a federal grand jury about his attempt to influence a drug smuggling prosecution. The other, Alcee L. Hastings (S.D. Fla.), had been prosecuted for soliciting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for reducing the sentences of two mob-connected developers who’d robbed a union pension fund. He beat the rap in court, but lost his post when the Senate voted to remove him for the bribery scheme and perjuring himself at trial. (Hastings bounced back pretty quickly, however, winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. He currently represents Florida’s 20th congressional district.)
More recently, we have the grotesque behavior of Judge Samuel Kent (S.D. Tex.), impeached in 2009 for sexually assaulting two court employees and lying about it to federal investigators. (Kent resigned before completion of his Senate trial.) Finally, there’s Judge G. Thomas Porteous (E.D. La.), impeached and removed in 2010 for “a longstanding pattern of corrupt conduct,” including kickbacks from attorneys, perjury in his personal bankruptcy filing, and “knowingly ma[king] material false statements about his past” to the Senate Judiciary Committee “in order to obtain the office of United States District Court Judge.”
In principle and in practice, then, perjury is an impeachable offense. That obviously includes lying under oath to gain confirmation to higher office. In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, David Rivkin and Lee Casey insist that “Justice Kavanaugh cannot be impeached for conduct before his promotion to the Supreme Court,” including “any claims that he misled the Judiciary Committee.” But that’s nonsense. Misleading the Judiciary Committee about prior conduct was precisely what was at issue in the Porteous impeachment.
And yet, the cases outlined above differ from Brett Kavanaugh’s in at least one crucial respect: in each of them, Congress had overwhelming evidence of impeachable falsehoods. Claiborne, Nixon, and Kent were already in federal prison when the House voted to impeach. Hastings and Porteous were removed after exhaustive investigations pursuant to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act convinced their colleagues impeachment referrals were warranted. Indeed, despite Hastings acquittal in his criminal trial, a Judicial Investigating Committee concluded there was “clear and convincing evidence” he lied and falsified documents in order to mislead the jury.