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By Bob Hegamin
AN OPINION December 26, 1998

From the U.S. Constitution:


Section 4. Impeachment

The President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.


Section 1. Legislative Powers.

All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

Section 2. House of Representatives, how constituted, power of impeachment.

5. The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other officers; and shall have the sole power of impeachment.

Section 3. The Senate, how constituted, impeachment trials.

6. The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments. When sitting for that purpose, they shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: and no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two thirds of the members present.

7. 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: but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment, and punishment, according to law.

AD 1998 has afforded the Congress of the United States of America a unique opportunity to test a unique constitutional power -- the impeachment of the President. Members of Congress have an obligation to perform their duty under the Constitution. Since the impeachment process has already been set in motion, the Senate’s part is to convene, take its oath or affirmation, and try the case on its merits. The process would eliminate any influence a “popular” President would have on the proceedings.

The battle taking place in Washington over the impeachment process is precisely what the framers of the Constitution had wanted to avoid. They did not want lengthy discussions and arguments over whether “the charges rise to the level of an impeachable offense”, or how the “trial” is to be conducted, or whether the penalty is to be “a censure or removal from office.” It’s clear what the framers wanted, a chief executive who would be accountable and responsible. The articles of impeachment were written such that they would provide the needed leverage to ensure those goals.

The trial segment of the impeachment process is not a trial in the traditional sense, in that the framers did not want the process to be taken over by the judiciary. In their wisdom, they had anticipated the growing sentiment voiced by Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice of the United States (1930 – 1941), some one-hundred and fifty years later. Of the Constitution, perhaps with tongue in cheek, he said, “…the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary [not the Constitution] is the safeguard of our liberties and of our property.” It was that remarkable foresight on which the framers considered the articles of impeachment -- written so that any interested citizen could easily understand them -- without the need for interpretation.

Today’s controversy over the impeachment process has reinforced and confirmed a deep-rooted suspicion that “something” has happened to the U.S. Constitution. What that “something” is can better be understood from the following in The American Political Process . (Charles R Adrian and Charles Press McGraw - Hill Book Company 1965)

“The American Constitution is ..... a written document that ..... is by no means all written. More of it is to be found in the opinions of the United States Supreme Court than in the document called the Constitution of the United States, even if we include the amendments. There is thus an informal constitution as well as the formal document.” (emphasis added)

But, the infrequent use of the articles of impeachment has spared them from being entangled in legalism. They have remained basically “uninterpreted”. It must be understood that this is not a recall of just any elected official, but the impeachment of the President, a decidedly unique process. It is not "the people" who will vote to remove the President. Constitutionally, that duty falls to the Congress of the United States with the House of Representatives investigating and establishing the charges, after which the Senate – acting as both judge and jury – attests to the legitimacy of the charges.

The “trial” is presided over by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who will be the only member representing the judiciary. The function is that of a facilitator, maintaining decorum over the process. The Senate can overrule any opinions voiced by the Chief Justice.

The Senate is a 100-member jury panel sitting in judgment of the President’s action. The members realize the proceedings will be quasi-judicial and political. Today, we can only assume the framers recognized such a condition would exist. In that assessment, they must have also hoped that adherence to integrity and honor in Congress would be linchpins in a decision as important as the impeachment of the President.

There is currently no constitutional crisis over the impeachment process. A problem exists, though, with the legal profession as it attempts to circumvent the Constitution, and it will certainly bring about the crisis everyone is trying to avoid. That crisis is the interpretation of the articles where none is needed. The language of the Constitution is very clear. After all, it was written to be understood.

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