Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the questions surrounding congressional efforts to impeach and disqualify President Trump. (I previously posted a primer on constitutional issues related to last week's insurgency.)
Can the House impeach President Trump again?
Yes. Recall that the House impeached President Trump just last year--for abusing power by pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to boost Trump's chances of reelection, and for obstructing the House investigation into the matter. Still, there's nothing prohibiting the House from impeaching President Trump again. (The House has only impeached two other presidents in our history, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. It only impeached them once. But nothing prohibits a second impeachment.)
What happens if the House impeaches?
Alone, nothing. Remember that impeachment is a two-step process: impeachment in the House, and conviction in the Senate. Impeachment in the House requires a bare majority; conviction in the Senate requires a 2/3 vote. "Impeachment" requires both actions. So a House impeachment alone does nothing . . . except record for history that the House voted that the president committed impeachable offenses. Removal from office and disqualification from future office (see below) require the action of both chambers.
What happens if both chambers act?
Two things could happen. First, Congress (again, upon impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate) could remove the president from office. That only happens, of course, if the president is still in office. So removal would only follow if Congress acted before President Trump's term ends.
Second, Congress can disqualify the president from holding office in the future. Under past congressional practice, this takes a bare majority in both chambers (and not the 2/3 super-majority in the Senate that's required for removal). (The Constitution itself isn't clear on the vote required for disqualification. But when the Constitution isn't clear, and there's no judicial precedent, we often look to past practice to discern the meaning. Past practice on disqualification says that Congress can disqualify with a bare majority vote in both houses.)
Finally, if both chambers act, Congress sets a precedent that behavior like President Trump's is impeachable, and cause for removal and disqualification. Because of the important role that history and practice play in our constitutional tradition, this kind of precedent would be significant, and could influence the future practices of both the President and Congress.
Can Congress impeach the President after his term ends?
Probably yes. The Constitution doesn't explicitly answer this question. But the House has twice impeached officials after they left office--once in 1797 (a Senator, after he was expelled), and once in 1876 (the Secretary of War, after he left office). These precedents are a good indication that Congress could impeach President Trump after he leaves office. (Again: past practice is a good indicator of meaning when the text is silent or ambiguous, and when there's no judicial precedent.) Moreover, as a practical matter, it only makes sense that Congress could impeach an officer after the officer leaves office. Otherwise, an officer could escape removal by resigning, or committing an impeachable offense near the end of the officer's term; and the officer could entirely escape disqualification (because a vote on disqualification often occurs only after an officer leaves office).
On the other hand, some argue that Congress can only impeach a sitting officer, in short, because only a sitting officer can be removed from office.
Can President Trump pardon himself out of impeachment?
No. The pardon power does not extend to impeachments.
Moreover, President Trump probably cannot pardon himself. (The Constitution doesn't say, and there's some disagreement on this. But the Justice Department has long held the view that the president cannot pardon him- or herself, based on the background constitutional principle that no person should be a judge in their own case.)
Can President Trump sue to stop or undo an impeachment?
No. The Supreme Court has ruled that impeachments are "non-justiciable." It said that the impeachment power belongs exclusively to Congress, and that the courts lack authority to second-guess congressional judgments about impeachment and its processes.
Can Congress disqualify President Trump from future office in some other way?
Yes. The 14th Amendment, Sections 3, says that any person who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" is disqualified from holding federal and state offices, including the presidency. This would require a bare majority vote in both houses, and Congress could disqualify President Trump under the 14th Amendment after he leaves office. (Note that the current House articles of impeachment reference 14th Amendment disqualification.)
Vice President Mike Pence wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late yesterday declining to invoke the 25th Amendment against President Trump, writing that he does "not believe that such a course of action is in the best interest of our Nation or consistent with our Constitution."
As to why invocation of the 25th Amendment was not "consistent with our Constitution," Pence wrote,
As you know full well, the 25th Amendment was designed to address Presidential incapacity or disability. . . . Under our Constitution, the 25th Amendment is not a means of punishment or usurpation. Invoking the 25th Amendment in such a manner would set a terrible precedent.
He went on to argue that it'd be a bad idea, too, writing that "now is the time for us to come together, now is the time to heal."
For more on the 25th Amendment, check out this Congressional Research Service report.
Monday, January 11, 2021
In orders this morning and last Thursday, the Supreme Court denied requests for expedited and interim relief in President Trump's challenges to state election processes and in Representative Louie Gohmert's lawsuit, respectively.
The rulings functionally close any chance that the Supreme Court will hear any additional challenges to the 2020 election.
Friday, January 8, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the more common constitutional questions related to Wednesday's insurgency:
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment
What is it?
Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment provides a four-step process for determining when a President "is unable to discharge the powers and duties of . . . office . . . ." Section 4 comes into play when a sitting President cannot or will not determine for him- or herself that he or she is so unable. (Section 3 provides the process for a President to make this determination for him- or herself, e.g., to temporarily designate him- or herself as unable to discharge the duties when he or she goes in for a medical procedure that may render the President temporarily unable to do the job.) If successful, a Section 4 process would make the Vice President the "Acting President."
How does it work?
Section 4 has four steps:
Step 1: The VP and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments (the cabinet) send a written declaration of inability to the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. (There are 15 executive departments, so a majority is 8. Section 4 alternatively allows "such other body as Congress may by law provide" to serve this role. But there's currently no "such other body.") When this happens, the VP automatically becomes Acting President and assumes the powers of the presidency.
Step 2: The President may then send a letter to these congressional leaders stating that he or she has no disability--in other words, contesting the judgment of the VP and the cabinet. Note that the President isn't required to do this. If the President doesn't do it, the VP continues as Acting President. There's no time limit for the President to submit this transmission.
Step 3: The VP and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments can send another transmission to the congressional leaders, but must do so within four days of the President's transmission. If so, then the VP remains Acting President. (There is some disagreement about who would have the powers of the presidency during the period between the President's transmission and the VP/cabinet's re-submission. There is good textual and historical evidence that the VP would remain Acting President during this period.)
Step 4: Congress shall assemble within 48 hours to decide the issue; it must make a decision within 21 days (of receipt of the last transmission (in Step 3), or, if not in session, after it's required to assemble). If Congress votes by 2/3 in each chamber that the President is unable to discharge the duties of office, then the VP remains Acting President. "[O]therwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office."
What does it mean for President Trump?
If the VP and cabinet activate Section 4, VP Pence is likely to become the Acting President for the rest of President Trump's term, no matter what President Trump does. That's because the VP would become Acting President after Step 1, and because the VP and the cabinet would almost certainly complete Step 3 (having already committed to Step 1). At that point, Congress has a full 21 days--days in which the VP would be Acting President--which would carry us beyond January 20, the date of President-Elect Biden's inauguration. (Congress could easily drag its feet and avoid a vote until after January 20.)
Here's a fantastic Congressional Research Service report on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
What is it?
Impeachment is a two-step process by which Congress can remove a sitting President from office and ban the President from holding future office. According to the Congressional Research Service, "[i]t appears that federal officials who have resigned have still been thought to be susceptible to impeachment and a ban on holding future office." A pardon doesn't work on impeachment. An impeached individual could also be subject to criminal liability.
How does it work?
Impeachment is a two-step process:
Step 1: The House votes to impeach. This requires only a bare majority.
Step 2: The Senate then holds a trial and votes to convict. Removal from office requires a 2/3 vote. But under Senate practice, a bare majority could vote to prevent the President from holding future office.
What does it mean for President Trump?
Congress could remove President Trump from office, or ban him from holding office in the future, or both. Congress could ban President Trump from holding future office, even if he resigns from office first. Congress could dispense with its ordinary impeachment procedures (which take a longer time) and move very quickly, even before January 20. That's because impeachment proceedings are non-justiciable (the courts won't hear challenges to them), and President Trump therefore couldn't challenge an impeachment process in court.
Here's an excellent Congressional Research Service Report on impeachment.
President Trump is free to resign from office at any time. There are no restrictions on this. If he resigns, under Section 1 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, "the Vice President shall become President."
What is it?
The President has the power to pardon individuals for federal (but not state) crimes. But the President can pardon for crimes arising from past behavior only; the President cannot pardon for future acts. (But by pardoning for past behavior, the President can insulate individuals from future indictments or convictions.) The pardon power is probably not reviewable in the courts, although an improper exercise of the pardon power could be an impeachable offense.
The Justice Department has long held that a President cannot pardon him- or herself. (The OLC memo is here.) But we've never faced that situation, and we have no court rulings.
There's a question as to whether the President can issue a blanket pardon, or whether the President must identify the specific criminal behavior. This has never been tested.
What does it mean for President Trump?
President Trump cannot pardon himself. If he tries--and attempts to use his self-pardon as a defense in a future federal prosecution--he will likely fail. But President Trump could resign from office, or delegate authority to the VP, and VP Pence (as Acting President) could pardon him. (See the discussion on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, above.)
VP Pence could not pardon President Trump for state crimes. The pardon power only works for federal offenses.
What is it?
The President enjoys certain immunities from the law by virtue of the President's unique position in our constitutional system. For example, the President is absolutely immune from civil liability for official actions. But the President is not immune from civil lawsuits for behavior prior to coming to office.
The Justice Department has long held that a sitting President is immune from federal criminal prosecution while in office. This is not uncontroversial, however, and it's never been tested. At the same time, DOJ has also long held that a President is not immune from federal criminal prosecution after the President leaves office. (Here's the most recent DOJ/OLC memo on this.)
The Supreme Court ruled just this past summer that a sitting President is not absolutely immune from all state criminal processes. President Trump is not immune from state criminal investigations and more, and he will enjoy no immunity from state criminal indictments or convictions when he leaves office.
What does it mean for President Trump?
President Trump is subject to federal and state criminal indictment and conviction for behavior while in office when he leaves office, and maybe sooner. Traditionally, the DOJ has not pursued criminal charges against a former President. But the Constitution does not forbid this.
A pardon, of course, would insulate President Trump from future federal criminal prosecution.
Friday, January 1, 2021
Judge Jeremy D. Kernodle (E.D. Tx.) dismissed the lawsuit headed by Representative Louie Gohmert against Vice President Mike Pence to throw the 2020 presidential election.
The ruling in the frivolous case was not unexpected.
The case arose when Gohmert and self-appointed Trump electors from Arizona sued VP Pence, arguing that the Electoral Count Act violates the Electors Clause and the Twelfth Amendment, and that Pence has authority to determine which slate of electors to accept when he presides over the congressional count of electoral votes on January 6. The, er, novel argument turns on the plaintiffs', um, creative reading of the Electors Clause, the Twelfth Amendment, and the Electoral Count Act.
Start with the Electors Clause. It says that "[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . ."
Next, the Twelfth Amendment. It says that each state's electors meet in their respective states and vote for President and VP. The electors then transmit their votes to the President of the Senate, the VP. "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted." The candidate winning the majority of electoral votes wins. But if no candidate gets a majority, the House selects the President, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
Finally, the Electoral Count Act. It says that Congress must count the votes in a joint session on January 6, with the VP presiding. It says that the executive in each state shall certify the electors to the Archivist of the United States, who then transmits the certificates to Congress. It says that a state's determination of their electors is "conclusive" if the state resolved all disputes over the election pursuant to state law at least 6 days before the electors meet. (This is called the "safe harbor" date.) Under the Act, if at least one Member of the House of Representatives and one Senator objects to a state's elector votes, the House and Senate meet in separate sessions and vote on the objection--by members, not state delegations.
Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all certified their electors to President-Elect Biden and VP-Elect Harris, pursuant to state law and the Electoral Count Act. The governors certified the electors to the Archivist.
But then Trump electors in those states met and, without any legal authority, self-certified their votes to President Trump and VP Pence.
The plaintiffs contend that the self-appointed Trump electors created a competing slate of electors in each of these states. (They did not. The "Trump electors" named themselves electors without any legal authority and contrary to state law in each state.) They argue that "provisions . . . of the Electoral Count Act are unconstitutional insofar as they establish procedures for determining which of two or more competing slates of Presidential Electors for a given State are to be counted in the Electoral College, or how objections to a proffered slate are adjudicated, that violate the Twelfth Amendment."
In particular, they argue that the states appointed Biden electors in violation of the Electors Clause, because the state governors and secretaries of state certified those electors, even though the Electors Clause specifies that this is a function for the legislature. (In fact, the legislatures in each of those states already determined the manner of appointing electors by enacting state law that awards electors to the majority winner of the popular vote in those states.)
Moreover, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "limits or eliminates [the VP's] exclusive authority and sole discretion under the Twelfth Amendment to determine which slates of electors for a State, or neither, may be counted." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment does not give this authority to the VP. The VP's role is ceremonial, simply to read and count the certified results from each state.)
Finally, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "replaces the Twelfth Amendment's dispute resolution procedure--under which the House of Representatives has sole authority to choose the President." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment dispute resolution procedure only applies when no candidate won a majority of electoral votes. The Electoral Count Act procedure applies when a member of both Houses objects to a state's slate of electors. Those are different dispute resolution processes, to be sure, but for very different kinds of dispute.)
The plaintiffs asked the court to hold that the VP has "exclusive authority and sole discretion in determining which electoral votes to count for a given State."
But the court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. It said that Gohmert lacked standing, because he asserted only an institutional harm (to the House), and not a personal harm. "Congressman Gohmert's alleged injury is 'a type of institutional injury (the diminution of legislative power), which necessarily damages all Members of Congress.'" It said that the Trump "electors" lacked standing, because any alleged injury that they suffered was not created by VP Pence, the defendant. Moreover, it said that both Gohmert and the Trump "electors" failed to show that their requested relief (an order that VP Pence has exclusive discretion to determine which electoral votes to count) would redress their injuries, because VP Pence might not determine the electoral votes in their favor.
The plaintiffs vowed to appeal. But don't expect this case to go anywhere . . . on standing, or on the merits.