Congressman Bob Goodlattte assures us that there is no impeachment in the offing

Representative Bob Goodlatte took to the Sunday morning chat circuit, specifically ABC’s This Week, to assure his fellow Americans that there was no need to impeach the President and no plans to do so in the foreseeable future. The Corner has the details.

Representative Bob Godlattte (R., Va.) does not believe President Obama has done anything that would merit impeachment under the Constitution.

“We are not working on or drawing up articles of impeachment,” Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told George Stephanopoulos on This Week Sunday. “The Constitution is very clear as to what constitutes grounds for impeachment of the president of the United States,” Goodlatte continued. “He has not committed the kind of criminal acts that call for that​.”

Before we get to the specifics of the crimes in question, here’s the video.

I personally haven’t shown much interest in impeachment, primarily because the odds of it being successful seem even less likely than with Clinton, particularly given the current structure in Washington. But Goodlatte does leave room for some long standing questions to be addressed. What sort of criminal acts would it take for Bob to change his answer?

The Constitution isn’t exactly crystal clear for those reading it in 21st century language on this subject. Article II, Section 4 says that it would happen on conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Treason is pretty well defined in the founding documents and would be a hard case to make. The same with bribery. But I’ve always struggled with the “high crimes and misdemeanors” part. Obviously the use of misdemeanors is a bit different than what we think of today, or else you’d be impeaching people for jay walking. But the origins are apparently quite different. Jon Roland of the Constitution Society has a pretty good primer for the layman.

The question of impeachment turns on the meaning of the phrase in the Constitution at Art. II Sec. 4, “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. I have carefully researched the origin of the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” and its meaning to the Framers, and found that the key to understanding it is the word “high”. It does not mean “more serious”. It refers to those punishable offenses that only apply to high persons, that is, to public officials, those who, because of their official status, are under special obligations that ordinary persons are not under, and which could not be meaningfully applied or justly punished if committed by ordinary persons.

Under the English common law tradition, crimes were defined through a legacy of court proceedings and decisions that punished offenses not because they were prohibited by statutes, but because they offended the sense of justice of the people and the court. Whether an offense could qualify as punishable depended largely on the obligations of the offender, and the obligations of a person holding a high position meant that some actions, or inactions, could be punishable if he did them, even though they would not be if done by an ordinary person.

One of the chief and most likely applicable examples Roland cites is that of “perjury.” (Which quickly swings us back around to Bill Clinton if we’re not careful.) But the current understanding of the word – as in lying under oath – isn’t the same as what the founders had in mind when it comes to those in high office. Roland makes the case that they defined it differently for Presidents, translated as “violation of one’s oath (or affirmation)”.

The oath in question is pretty easy to find also:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Since I’m not a constitutional scholar, I won’t even try to break that down for every possible scenario, but by Roland’s reading, it certainly seems to leave a lot of gray area where a variety of failings of the chief executive could apply. But in any event, assuming Goodlatte is correct, this remains an academic discussion anyway.