Fort Report: Due Process

Oct 4, 2019

There’s an inscription in stone on the side of the Nebraska State Capitol: “Wisdom.  Justice.  Power.  Mercy.  Constant Guardians of the Law.”  There is a fine line between a wise, merciful pursuit of justice versus a political power play.  For it to be properly exercised, power must be inextricably intertwined with wisdom and justice.

This week, North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submarine.  China unveiled new advanced weaponry.  Unemployment is at its lowest level in fifty years.  Yet the sole focus of Washington is impeachment. 

Impeachment shouldn’t be about emotion.  It shouldn’t be about politics.  Along with the authority to declare war, it’s the most serious question undertaken by the House of Representatives.  Unfortunately, politics and impeachment are now impossibly and imprudently commingled, as the dynamics around a formal impeachment inquiry into the President’s actions engulf the news cycle and suck the oxygen out of almost every room on Capitol Hill.

It is thus crucial before any conclusions are reached on this weighty matter that a fair and transparent process for inquiry is established.  The chaotic swirl of consigning the initial proceeding to the secretive Intelligence Committee (versus the Judiciary Committee) is part of the current controversy.  In the past, impeachment inquiries have customarily started with a formal measure outlining the evidence justifying the inquiry.  A thoughtful approach based on precedent and current House rules provides a guardrail against political contamination. 

In the book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy tells the story of the Republican Senator, Edmund Ross of Kansas, who in 1868 cast the deciding vote in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.  Kennedy elaborates on the agony faced by Ross, who did not particularly like Johnson but wanted to see a fair trial for him.  Ross finally reasoned that if a president could be removed from office in a proceeding tainted by partisan disagreement, the presidency would forever be under control of whatever congressional faction held power.

In the end, Ross voted to not convict President Johnson, saying, “I stared into my political grave.”  Ross's action unleashed a torrent of personal criticism.  Neither he nor any other Republican who voted to acquit President Johnson was re-elected.  Ross and his family also suffered ostracism and poverty upon their return to Kansas in 1871.

The leaders in the House of Representatives recently had this to say.  Speaker Pelosi: “We have to be fair to the President.”  Minority Leader McCarthy: “The American people deserve the assurance that basic standards of due process will be present.”