Editorial: When impeachment was unanimous

ALEX BRANDON/THE ASSOCIATED PRESSThen-Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, center, was an impeachment manager in the 2010 impeachment trial of Thomas Porteous, then a federal judge in Louisiana who was accused of various improprieties. Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, D-Ga. is on the left, and Rep. Adam B Schiff, D-Calif, chaired the house committee that investigated President Donald Trump’s call to Ukraine.

The impending impeachment trial of President Trump will look nothing like the last time the Senate held an impeachment trial. For one thing, then-Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, was an impeachment prosecutor the last time around.

Trump is the first president to be impeached since Bill Clinton in 1998, but that skips over two other impeachments in between — both of wayward federal judges. Both times Goodlatte was a prosecutor — an impeachment manager, in the formal lexicon. The first was in 2009. Samuel Kent was a federal judge in Texas who was convicted of obstruction of justice — he lied to investigators about sexually abusing two female court employees — and was sentenced to 33 months. Federal judges, though, are appointed for life, even if they’re behind bars. Kent sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee saying it shouldn’t bother impeaching him, because that would take too long. He intended to retire — but a year from then, when he reached the age where he could qualify for a pension. Goodlatte says Judiciary members “saw red when they read that letter.” They then proceeded to show just how fast the wheels of government could turn. Less than a month after Kent’s letter, the House unanimously voted to impeach Kent and named as its lead managers Democrat Adam Schiff (more famous now than he was then) — and Goodlatte.

The trial, though, never happened. When Senate officials went to Kent’s jail cell to present him with the formal charges, he handed them an updated letter of resignation. Kent never got his pension.

Meanwhile, the House was already dealing with Thomas Porteous, a federal judge in Louisiana accused of various colorful forms of corruption. Among them: accepting cash “gifts” from lawyers who were practicing before him, about $40,000 in all. Kent’s case was clear — the judge had been convicted of a crime. Porteous, though, was never charged. “We never got a satisfactory answer from the Department of Justice why he was never prosecuted,” Goodlatte says. “Our best guess is it was just a lot of work and they weren’t interested in doing it, which is pretty disgraceful.”

Higher-level judges stripped Porteous of all his cases but couldn’t remove him from the bench. Instead, a committee of senior judges recommended in June 2008 that the House impeach him. This took a lot longer than the Kent case because it required an actual investigation, one that the Justice Department hadn’t done. In March 2010, the House voted unanimously to impeach Porteous on four articles — one dealing with corruption on the federal bench, one dealing with earlier corrupt acts when he was a state judge, one dealing with lying on a bankruptcy filing, and one dealing with lying as part of his confirmation proceedings.

The bankruptcy count gives a glimmer into Porteous: He’d run up massive gambling debts, but he didn’t want his bankruptcy filing to make the news, Goodlatte says. Instead, Porteous filed the bankruptcy under a false name, then later amended it to his correct name — thinking that reporters would pass over the false name and never check back on a routine case involving a name they didn’t recognize. Once again, Schiff and Goodlatte were named as impeachment managers — except this time there would be a trial, one that would take more than a week. The Senate didn’t want to shut down all business for that long, so it appointed a 12-member committee — six Democrats, six Republicans — to hear the case. In both the Clinton impeachment and the upcoming Trump case, the Senate wanted to limit proceedings to the bare minimum. With Porteous, though, the goal was to hold a proceeding that, as closely as possible, mirrored an actual full-fledged federal trial, with more than 20 witnesses called.

When it began, one of the senators — Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — mused that this was going to be a very one-sided affair. On the prosecution side, he saw two politicians who hadn’t been in court in decades. Schiff was a former prosecutor but Goodlatte’s legal specialty had been civil law. On the defense side, there was an all-star cast. Porteous was represented by famed law professor Jonathan Turley (who testified for Republicans in the Trump proceedings in the House) and five lawyers from one of Washington’s best-known law firms. The trial went on for five straight days, with 26 witnesses called. Then the entire transcript — 6,245 pages— was sent to the full Senate, and over another day and a half the two sides made their closing arguments there. Goodlatte argued the facts; Schiff argued the law.

On the corruption article, the Senate voted 96-0 to convict Porteous and remove him from office —the first unanimous conviction vote in an impeachment trial since the Civil War. The closest vote came on the article which dealt with Porteous’ time as a state judge — there was some belief that senators shouldn’t convict a federal judge for something that happened before he was in federal service. But they did — by 69-27, two votes more than necessary. The Senate also convicted Porteous on the other articles —88-8 on the bankruptcy fraud and 94-2 on lying during his confirmation. Afterward, Whitehouse told Goodlatte about his earlier prediction and how he’d been right — the case was a mismatch, just in the opposite way of how he expected. Goodlatte remembers the Porteous impeachment as “one of the most interesting things I did as a member of Congress.” There are some similarities with the Trump impeachment; lawyers for Kent and Porteous refused to cooperate with the House Judiciary inquiry. Kent’s lawyers called the process a “circus.” Porteous sued, claiming his rights were being violated. Mostly, though, there are differences. Kent was a Republican appointee, Porteous a Democratic one — but neither impeachment carried any hint of partisanship. “My takeaway is that it was a good example of how an impeachment should be done,” Goodlatte says.

For what it’s worth, Goodlatte thinks the House was wrong to impeach Trump because “abuse of power” is too vague a charge. “The danger here is if you impeach somebody every time they do something you think is improper, I think you’re lessening the effect of impeachment, which is probably the most important check on a president. Under the rubric of ‘abuse of power,’ it wouldn’t take much to find an abuse of power by every president.” But a judge convicted of a crime and another accused of taking money — those are clear enough to persuade even a divided Congress to vote unanimously.

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