Trying to tamp down impeachment talk earlier this year, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) insisted that President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior didn’t justify that remedy: “When and if he breaks the law, that is when something like that would come up.”
Normally, there isn’t much that Pelosi and Tea Party populist Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) agree on, but they’re on the same page here. In a recent appearance on Trump’s favorite morning show, “Fox & Friends,” Brat hammered Democrats calling for the president’s impeachment: “there’s no statute that’s been violated,” Brat kept insisting: They cannot name the statute!”
Actually, they did: it’s “Obstruction of Justice, as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1512 (b)(3),” according to Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) who introduced an article of impeachment against Trump on July 12. Did Trump break that law when he fired FBI director James Comey over “this Russia thing”? Maybe; maybe not. But even if “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a charge of obstruction on the available evidence, that wouldn’t mean impeachment is off-limits. Impeachable offenses aren’t limited to crimes.
That’s a settled point among constitutional scholars: even those, like Cass Sunstein, who take a restrictive view of the scope of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” recognize that “an impeachable offense, to qualify as such, need not be a crime.” University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt sums up the academic consensus: “The major disagreement is not over whether impeachable offenses should be strictly limited to indictable crimes, but rather over the range of nonindictable offenses on which an impeachment may be based.”
In some ways, popular confusion on this point is understandable. Impeachment’s structure echoes criminal procedure: “indictment” in the House, trial in the Senate—and the constitutional text, to modern ears, sounds something like “grave felonies, and maybe lesser criminal offenses too.”
But “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a term of art in British impeachment proceedings for four centuries before the Framers adopted it, was understood to reach a wide range of offenses that, whether or not criminal in nature, indicated behavior incompatible with the nature of the office. For James Madison, impeachment was the “indispensable” remedy for “Incapacity, negligence, or perfidy” on the part of the president—categories of conduct dangerous to the republic, only some of which will also constitute crimes.
The criminal law is designed to punish and deter, but those goals are secondary to impeachment, which aims at removing federal officers unfit for continued service. And where the criminal law deprives the convicted party of liberty, the constitutional penalties for impeachable offenses “shall not extend further than to removal from Office,” and possible disqualification from future officeholding. As Justice Joseph Story explained, the remedy “is not so much designed to punish an offender, as to secure the state against gross official misdemeanors. It touches neither his person, nor his property; but simply divests him of his political capacity.”
No doubt being ejected from a position of power on the grounds that you’re no longer worthy of the public’s trust can feel like a punishment. But the mere fact that removal is stigmatizing doesn’t suggest that criminal law standards apply. Raoul Berger once illustrated that point with an analogy Donald Trump would probably find insulting: “to the extent that impeachment retains a residual punitive aura, it may be compared to deportation, which is attended by very painful consequences, but which, the Supreme Court held, ‘is not a punishment for a crime.’”