Saturday, January 16, 2021

Best outcome of impeachment for development of law: Supreme Court clarifies meaning of "high" in "high crimes and misdemeanors"

After years of making pro-Trump comments (except in connection with patent policy, where a couple of his appointees did terrible things), I was shocked by the absurd positions he took on SARS-CoV-2 last year--even by utterances that weren't nearly as crazy as suggesting that one might inject disinfectants. Those who have read my comments on other issues know that I view COVID-19 as the moment of truth. Politicians who failed to do their job in that most critical context in a long time don't deserve to be supported or trusted, but I found myself in agreement with politicians I fundamentally disagreed with on other issues. Only a minority of Trump supporters has a similar set of priorities, but apparently enough for him to lose the election. While some conspiracy theorists portrayed the outcome of the mail-in vote in various places as a statistical anomaly, there actually is a simple explanation: people so afraid of COVID they'd rather vote by mail were extremely unlikely to have faith in Donald Trump. What might have been a statistical anomaly under "all other things being equal" circumstances just doesn't apply here.

Similarly, the fact that Trump held huge rallies, unlike the President-elect, doesn't tell us anything about the fairness of the election. Even under normal circumstances, rallies aren't tallies. But they do normally indicate the enthusiasm of a party base. The 2020 U.S. presidential campaign was totally different, mostly because of COVID, and secondarily because many people didn't have to be huge Biden fans in order to vote for him: this time around, even Hillary would most likely have won. And I almost feel like predicting that four years of the Biden Administration, unless his waning physical fitness requires him to step down too early, will be followed by one or two Harris terms, and I'd even predict she'll win Texas, considering some overall trends and developments, including some relocation decisions by tech companies.

The GOP will have to reinvent itself and probably won't even start that process anytime soon. A tectonic shift comparable to the one under FDR--who broadened the appeal of the Democratic Party--would be needed for a GOP candidate to be elected POTUS again. Without the Electoral College, the GOP would already have had to reposition itself on a lot of issues, as they won the popular vote in only one out of the last eight presidential elections, and who knows whether that one exception would even have happened without 9/11.

It's obviously hard to strike the right balance between giving everyone, including minorities, fair access to an election and making an election secure. Congressman Dan Crenshaw and his guests, one of whom is a University of Texas law professor, made great points about that in this podcast. Shortcomings should be addressed and I hope Democrats will be principled enough to do that in certain states. That said, there's really no reason not to assume Trump's covidiocies--and not a multi-state conspiracy to commit election fraud--cost Trump the election.

There have been credible reports of Trump being "entranced" by watching the Capitol riots on TV, a state of mind that prevented him from saying the right things in the right away-and sooner. The American system of government wasn't under serious threat for even one second, but if those reports are indeed true (all I can say is they sound credible and they're consistent with everything that is known, including the timeline), then it would even have been warranted to invoke the 25th Amendment.

The impeachment resolution by the House of Representatives isn't based on his behavior in front of his TV set in the White House, which disqualifies the person in some fundamental ways (I'm really very disappointed), yet doesn't qualify as a "high crime and misdemeanor." So the article of impeachment talks about his call with Georgia Secy. of State Brad Raffensperger as an effort to subvert the election certification process, and about incitement of an insurrection in accordance with the 14th Amendment.

Trump's defenses are obvious: he's already said the Raffensperger call was about "settlement" of pending litigation, and in his January 6 speech he used the word "peacefully" (though in that same speech he urged supporters to "fight like hell"), so there's a free-speech issue that the Supreme Court resolved in Brandenburg v. Ohio, clarifying that it's all free spech until someone incites "imminent illegal action" (but by design--"likely" to have the effect--not coincidence).

What individual Republican senators (especially the 20 who need to run for re-election next year unless they retire) consider to be best for their career remains to be seen. For their party, it would undoubtedly be best if a sufficient number of them joined Democrats and impeached Trump. Given that the sole remedy relevant after he's left office will be the disqualification from any future federal office, there is, however, the possibility of the Supreme Court hearing an appeal. And that's what I actually hope will happen, but for the sake of clarification.

As the Cornell Law School webpage explains, there are different opinions on what the "high" in Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" means.

What would benefit Trump would be an interpretation of "high" as "very serious," as some argue that the word "other" means it must be at a level with treason and bribery. But the alternative interpretation--and that's actually the one I prefer--is that "high" in this context refers to the office of the one who committed the alleged wrongdoing, not in the sense of making anything reproachable a potential basis for impeachment, but connecting it to how someone carried out their duties as opposed to, say, a minor offense in their private life.

The line-drawing problem here is that too low a standard would give Congress too much latitude. In parliamentary democracies, such as some European countries, the head of government can be voted out of office by a parliamentary vote. The U.S. system is more presidential. And now, with all that happened on 1/6, there is a situation where the exacting standard of criminal law may not be met. Also, the fact that it's "only" about disqualification (because it's too late for removal from office) doesn't change the standard, though some commentators almost make it sound like that.

The Senate basically makes its own case law so far in presidential impeachment trials. I don't think it would be wrong for senators to vote for impeachment even if Trump's actions might be protected in a conventional criminal proceeding by rules affording settlement talks and free speech strong protection. Honestly, I would be disappointed if the Senate acquitted him because future presidents should learn a lesson even before they take office so they refrain from actions like that in the first place.

The Supreme Court can clarify what the word "high" means in this particular context. I know some don't think so, but I found arguments in favor of review more convincing, though I don't mean to say that--in more timely cases--a removal from office should be delayed that way. I hope the SCOTUS will have the last word. The judges appointed by Trump, at different levels of the judiciary, have recently shown their independence. Democrats will find it hard to trust them on this one, but I believe they should. Justice Barrett is new, but Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh have been serving on the SCOTUS for some time already and they're going to look at the issue, not the party. They know that whatever they decide will apply next time that a Democratic president may engage in problematic conduct. And there may now actually be a line of Democratic presidents that will be longer, possibly far longer, than many Republicans would acknowledge. Even without Trump's disgraceful fourth year in the White House, Texas was going to turn blue in the near term, as Arizona has (possibly on a lasting basis), and Puerto Rico can't be denied statehood for too much longer. One can only hope that Democratic policies won't move too far to the left...

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