The Failed History of Impeachment, Part I: When Impeachment Works

[Cross-posted at ProgressiveHistorians, Daily Kos, My Left Wing, Open Left, and Booman Tribune.]

I'm one of the few bloggers out there who doesn't believe we should be pushing for impeachment of President Bush -- even though I think he's clearly committed impeachable crimes.  My reasoning is not based on Bush's guilt or innocence, but on the fact that impeachment as a mechanism is broken and needs significant repair before it can be viewed as a legitimate means of removal from office of any public official, much less a U.S. President.

People who say there are few precedents for impeachment don't, with respect, know what they're talking about.  It's true that only three Presidents have been impeached by the U.S. Congress; but limiting impeachment to that set ignores the fact that federal impeachment has been tried no less than eighteen times since our country's founding; its victims have included, in addition to the three Presidents, a United States Senator, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of War, a U.S. Commerce Court Judge, and eleven U.S. District Court judges.  Meanwhile, a large number of federal officials who clearly committed impeachable offenses were not impeached for one reason or another.  At least one prominent political criminal was not able to be impeached: Vice President Aaron Burr, whose treasonous acts were committed in the last month of his term and who was subsequently tried for treason after he had been out of office for two years.  Others who got away include Iran-Contra mastermind Caspar Weinberger and Teapot Dome malefactor Albert B. Fall.  We'll come back to these impeachments-that-never-were in Wednesday's final installment.

While no one's guilt can ever be completely proved or disproved, but the eighteen cases of impeachment can be pretty clearly grouped into two categories: those for whom the impeachment process worked properly, and those whose impeachments were botched or who should never have been impeached at all.  In today's installment, we'll examine nine impeachment cases that were properly treated by the Senate; tomorrow, we'll look at nine cases where impeachment failed or was unnecessary.  On Wednesday, I'll discuss some conclusions and suggest three recommendations for how to fix our broken system of impeachment.

My major source for the following is this PBS timeline; other sources include this U.S. Senate article, and this collection of documents from JusticeLearning, though I've consulted additional sources (including Wikipedia and JSTOR) and my own memory where necessary.

The Open-and-Shut Cases

There are surprisingly few of these, but the two men below clearly met the criteria for impeachment and were dispatched in due course:

  • West Hughes Humphreys (U.S. District Court Judge, 1862): Humphreys, a distinguished judge and member of Tennessee's 1834 Constitutional Convention, was impeached for the simple reason that he had accepted a position as Confederate District Court Judge without resigning his Union commission.  It's unclear just how exactly Humphreys expected to carry out his Union duties while residing in and in the employ of a Confederate state.  In any event, he was unanimously impeached by both the House and Senate and fled deep into Confederate territory to avoid capture.
  • Robert W. Archbald (U.S. Commerce Court Judge, 1912): Archbald was appointed to the U.S. Commerce Court in 1911 and immediately began accepting bribes from just about everyone he was charged with overseeing: coal and gas companies, attorneys, and litigants in his own court -- and he was an equal-opportunity bribee, accepting land as well as cash.  Impeached by the Senate less than a year after taking office, Archbald was still only convicted on five of the thirteen counts of impeachment levied against him, despite clear evidence of his guilt of all thirteen.  Prickly Senator Henry Ashurst of Arizona, who would later become U.S. Senate Majority Leader, was the only senator to vote against all thirteen counts of impeachment.

The Head-Scratchers

The following four cases are each among the most difficult to determine what exactly the Senate should have done.  Scholars continue to debate the proper outcomes, and will probably do so for a long time to come:

  • John Pickering (U.S. District Court Judge, 1803): Pickering is an odd case because he was not actually charged with any high crimes or misdemeanors.  Rather, he was clearly unable to perform his duties, owing to a mixture of alcoholism and insanity.  He failed to show up at court for a period of over a year, then suddenly appeared and handed down a judgment against the government without even hearing their witnesses, all the while raving and cursing.  The entire impeachment trial was highly politically charged, as the Federalists claimed the whole case had been ginned up by Republicans trying to replace Pickering with one of their own.  In the end, Pickering was impeached and removed from office by the barest of margins.
  • James H. Peck (U.S. District Court Judge, 1830): Another strange case in which the judge was clearly not impeached for political reasons, but was also not clearly guilty.  In a fairly routine case, Peck ruled against a client represented by attorney Luke Lawless, and then published his opinion in a local newspaper.  Lawless replied with a broadside in another newspaper attacking the Peck's ruling.  Peck, in turn, responded by finding Lawless in contempt of court, throwing him in jail for twenty-four hours, and suspending for eighteen months his right to practice before a Federal court.  Excessive and autocratic?  Absolutely.  Grounds for impeachment, something that hadn't been tried successfully for twenty-seven years?  Maybe not.

    Nevertheless, the indomitable Lawless began a crusade against Peck and became the first private citizen to file an impeachment brief with the House of Representatives.  The House voted to impeach Peck, but Lawless was unable to get even a simple majority in the Senate for removing the judge from office.

  • Halsted Ritter (U.S. District Court Judge, 1936): Ritter's case, like that of Harold Louderback three years before, was a series of misdemeanors including income tax fraud, practicing law while serving as a federal judge, and embezzlement.  As it had with Louderback, the Senate acquitted Ritter of all these charges, which its members did not deem equal to the "high crimes and misdemeanors" needed for impeachment.  However, in an unprecedented vote, Ritter was convicted and removed from office by exactly the required two-thirds vote on a single charge: bringing the judiciary into disrepute.  Essentially, the Senate judged that Ritter's conduct violations, while not individually meeting the threshold of high misdemeanors, did when taken together so disgrace the judiciary that they were grounds for impeachment.
  • Alcee L. Hastings (U.S. District Court Judge, 1988): The Hastings case is perhaps the most confusing and uncertain of all the federal impeachments.  in 1983, Hastings was indicted by a federal grand jury for accepting a $150,000 bribe; Hastings was acquitted by a jury of his peers, though his alleged co-conspirator was convicted of the same crime.  Four years later, a judicial review panel concluded that there was a preponderance of evidence indicating Hastings had actually conspired to accept the bribe; this finding prompted the House to begin impeachment proceedings.

    The special Senate committee that investigated the evidence against Hastings was chaired by Jeff Bingaman and vice-chaired by Arlen Specter.  Both Bingaman and Specter concluded that there was not enough evidence to impeach Hastings on any count, but the full Senate disagreed, removing him from office with five votes to spare.  Undaunted, Hastings then proceeded to run for and win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the very body that had just impeached him.  Hastings retains that seat to this day, and is the only the second impeached official (after William Blount) to subsequently run for and win political office.

The Resignations

Finally, the following three men resigned before their Senate impeachment trials could begin, obviating the need for such trials and effectively admitting their guilt:

  • Mark Delahay (U.S. District Court Judge, 1873): Really, Delahay shouldn't even be on this list; instead, he properly belongs in a separate group of twenty-two judges who, since 1818, have resigned from the federal bench before they could be impeached.  The only difference between Delahay and the rest is that impeachment charges were actually introduced in the House before he could tender his resignation.  A political appointee of Abraham Lincoln(!), who was both a personal friend and a relative, Delahay was alleged to have committed a variety of offenses including presiding while drunk and embezzling money from the government.
  • George W. English (U.S. District Court Judge, 1926): English was rightfully impeached by a bipartisan group of House members after he embezzled money, showed favoritism at the bench, unfairly disbarred attorneys, and threatened to jail jurors if they did not vote his way.  It was an open-and-shut case that the Senate was never able to try; English resigned before the trial could begin.
  • Richard M. Nixon (President, 1974): Not much to say about this most corrupt of all U.S. Presidents.  Nixon would likely have been impeached by a comfortable majority in the full Senate for his attempts to rig the 1972 Presidential election (attempts that were at least in part responsible for the defeat of Edmund Muskie, Nixon's strongest potential opponent, in the Democratic primary); even such a staunch conservative as Barry Goldwater had signaled that he would probably vote against Nixon.  After the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against Nixon, the President resigned, making further pursuit of impeachment proceedings unnecessary.

In Part II of this series, to be posted tomorrow, I'll discuss the cases where impeachment has failed.

< George W. Obama? Or Hillary R. Bush? | The Failed History of Impeachment, Part II: When Impeachment Doesn't Work >
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