Lessons from W.Va.’s impeachment
After covering four months of last year’s impeachment of a majority of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, I feel like it prepared me for what’s going on at the national level with President Donald Trump and Congress’ impeachment process. While there are obvious differences, I do think we can learn something from what we went through as a state.
Normally, I wouldn’t jump into a national topic. Afterall, there were probably plenty of columnists in your weekend newspaper with different opinions on the Trump impeachment probe. I don’t plan to get into the weeds on whether he should be impeached. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter.
Why doesn’t it matter? Let’s return to the phrase I used often during the coverage of the state Supreme Court impeachment: it’s a political process, not a legal one. The U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. House of Representatives the “sole power of impeachment.” The U.S. Senate has the “sole power to try all impeachments.”
There isn’t much more guidance than that. Anyone who faces trial in the Senate after impeachment can only be removed by two-thirds vote of the members, 67 senators. If the Senate convicts a president (which has never happened in the history of the republic), he must vacate the office of president and can never hold another office again.
The only real instruction in the Constitution for the House is that the president and vice president can only be removed by impeachment for treason, bribery, and “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What does that mean? Frankly, it means whatever the House wants it to mean.
As I said above, there are differences between how the federal government handles impeachment and how the state does it, but not by much. And because it is a political process and not a legal one, it’s governed more by the rules of parliamentary procedure instead of what one would see in a criminal process.
In the case of the state Supreme Court impeachment, the House of Delegates gaveled into special session and quickly adopted a resolution that laid out exactly how the impeachment investigation was going to go. The House Judiciary Committee acted as prosecutors and investigators, meeting most of the summer of 2018.
They subpoenaed documents and witnesses, building a case against the entire remaining justices of the court at the time. While impeachment is a political process, it’s a process more often than not managed by real-life lawyers, as most of the House Judiciary Committee members. The committee also included a few retired law enforcement officers. In many ways, the state Supreme Court investigation acted as half police investigation, half grand jury presentation.
Once they had what they felt to be a solid case, they presented it to the entire House of Delegates in the form of articles of impeachment, which were then adopted. The state Senate then started work on the impeachment trials which included an appointed circuit court judge to oversee the trials. There was only one trial, though, as one of the justices was able to take the state Senate to court to halt her trial.
In the case of President Trump, the House of Representatives has started looking into issues revolving around a call and an alleged quid pro quo between Trump and the president of the Ukraine. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is investigating, subpoenaing witnesses, and collecting documents.
Earlier this week, several Republican House members — including West Virginia’s 2nd District representative, Alex Mooney — stormed a secure room where depositions were taking place. They argued the impeachment investigation should be public. Never mind that there are Republicans on the oversight committee, including 3rd District Congresswoman Carol Miller, R-W.Va.
Don’t forget, there were occasional closed-door hearings during the investigation by the House of Representatives in former President Richard Nixon. The Starr Report, which accused former President Bill Clinton of lying under oath, was not made public until the investigation had concluded. The members of the U.S. House investigating Trump don’t have the benefit of Woodward and Bernstein stories or the Starr Report, which one could buy at newsstands in the late 1990s.
What congressional lawmakers are doing is similar to what the West Virginia House of Delegates did: they’re acting as both criminal investigators and grand jury. Some of that is going to be held behind closed doors like any grand jury would. The next step will be an official inquiry led by the House Judiciary Committee and if they adopt a set of articles of impeachment, the full House of Representatives will vote and send the articles to the U.S. Senate.
Will Trump be impeached? The House of Representatives has to approve articles of impeachment by majority vote, and Democrats have the majority. Getting to the two-thirds needed in the U.S. Senate to convict Trump and remove him from office is another story as long as Republicans have the majority there. While I understand some people don’t want to see Trump impeached, so far the process being used is appropriate.