Reforming Corporate Behavior

We have heard for years that the sole purpose of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders, end of story. This notion gained ascendancy after a 1970 article published in the New York Times by economist Milton Friedman, who huffed that the idea that corporations have a broader responsibility to society is “pure and unadulterated socialism.”

Friedman’s article provided intellectual cover for the slash and burn corporate greed in the following two decades. But today Friedman’s article seems like an odd period piece and his ideas out of step. In fact, the Business Roundtable (BRT) recently repudiated Friedman’s view and announced henceforth that satisfying other corporate stakeholders, such as employees and customers, will be given equal importance to producing wealth for shareholders.

The Roundtable, formed in 1972, is a group of about 200 chief executive officers of America’s largest corporations. Chief executives are employees of the corporations they lead, although clearly the most important and influential of them. CEOs are hired by corporate boards of directors and these directors are elected by shareholders. So CEOs lack the power to declare unilaterally that the mission of their corporation will change. The recent statement of the BRT is not binding on anyone, but each CEO certainly sought the approval of his or her directors before signing on to it.

The BRT’s original leadership were bi-partisan business statesmen. But the BRT soon evolved into a forum for chief executives to attack labor unions and the taxation of business. These were the libertarian views of the infamous Koch brothers and their ilk, who spent millions of dollars promoting this “free market, shareholder primacy” concept using an army of captured think-tanks. And the BRT began functioning like a trade association for chief executives, lobbying for compensation tied to corporate share price.

Much blame for today’s lack of corporate social responsibility has been placed on using short term financial results and share price to determine executive compensation. Large, publicly-traded corporations must report quarterly to the Securities and Exchange Commission on their financial and business position. These reports often drive share price. Short-termism encourages a focus solely on the near term results of a particular activity or policy, instead of on the value that can be created by long-term investment in employees, customers and communities.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, author Andrew Winston neatly sums up the problem this way.

The world faces enormous, thorny challenges that business is feeling: climate change, growing inequality (and awareness that these CEOs make hundreds of times more than their employees), water and resource scarcity, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity and more. These issues require systemic efforts, cooperation, and pricing of those “externalities” (like pollution and carbon emissions) that business has been able to push off on society. The current shareholder-obsessed system is not fit for this purpose.

It is probably most accurate to say that the BRT’s new policy statement is a recognition of the change that has already taken place in the business environment, rather than an exercise in leadership. As The Economist magazine put it, the CEOs “have either seen the light or caved in, depending on whom you ask.” As one example of the change around them, polling among millennials reveals that this important demographic does not want to work for, or patronize, businesses that do not share their more progressive viewpoint.

Of course there are skeptics and opponents of the new policy statement. Some ask how we could expect a corporation like ExxonMobil, which has spent decades questioning climate science and undermining global action, to act responsibly now merely because its CEO has signed the BRT statement. Not likely because the energy giant would have to rethink its entire business. Energy companies have billions of dollars worth of coal, oil and gas still underground. Corporate managers cannot by law intentionally erode the value of the investments of their shareholders, many of whom are retirees, widows and orphans.

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers notes that most of the Roundtable’s CEOs are sincere and want to do the right thing. “But in a world of fierce competition, good intentions are not enough.” He advocates a program of legislation and regulation to complement and implement the BRT statement. These would include raising the federal minimum wage and penalizing the transfer of jobs overseas.

Assuming that the CEOs have “seen the light,” it may be because important political figures are also calling for better controls on how corporations behave. Businesses have no “right” to operate as a corporation. Corporations are chartered by the states in which they are organized and must follow the legal rules of those states. Theoretically, nothing prevents the state of Delaware, where many large corporations are headquartered, from amending its law to require, say, a ceiling on the difference between a CEOs compensation and that of the average corporate employee in the state.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that, as she does for most everything. Recall that the basis of the Citizens United case that opened the floodgates of corporate money into politics was that corporations are to be treated like people under the First Amendment. Warren’s plan turns the tables. If corporations are to have the rights of people, they should have the corresponding obligation to act like good citizens, not like sociopaths whose entire obligation is to make money.

Warren’s proposal is called the Accountable Capitalism Act. It would require any corporation with revenue over $1 billion to obtain a federal charter, which would obligate the corporation to consider the interests of all stakeholders in corporate decisions. Under the bill workers of the corporation would elect 40% of the directors, and corporate political activity would have to be authorized by 75% of the shareholders and 75% of the directors, many of whom would be workers.

Writing in the online journal Vox, Matthew Yglesias says that there is “no getting around the fact that Warren’s proposal would be bad – really bad – for rich people.” So you can expect them and their political allies to marshal every resource at their disposal to oppose it. Warren’s entire proposal might be difficult to enact even if Democrats sweep in 2020. But you can be sure that pressure on corporations to act in more socially responsible ways will be on the political agenda for years to come.

Donald Trump: Guilty of Obstruction of Justice

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has now delivered his final report on the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to the Justice Department. This investigation was broadened mid-stream to include potential obstruction of justice by the President through his interference with the Russia investigation. The final report consists of two volumes – the first devoted to Russian meddling and the second to the obstruction issue. The evidence of Russian meddling is stunning. The evidence of obstruction of justice is equally compelling, although the report was careful not to assert directly that the President committed a crime. Instead, it politely concludes that the evidence “does not exonerate” him.

In his May 29 public statement, Mueller referred to the Justice Department policy barring the indictment of a sitting President. Charging the President with a crime, he said, was “not an option we could consider.” It is important to understand that Mueller did not say the evidence was insufficient to make out a case of obstruction, only that Congress must decide this question in an impeachment proceeding. Mueller reiterated what he said earlier in his report — if his office had been confident that the President did not commit obstruction of justice, it would have said so. But “we are unable to reach that judgment.”

The rest of us are not constrained by the Justice Department policy. Anyone reading the Mueller Report with an ounce of objectivity will conclude that Trump actually did violate federal criminal law several times. That is also the conclusion of nearly 1000 former U.S. Attorneys and prosecutors who have signed an online letter concerning the report. They said:

Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.

What Constitutes Obstruction of Justice?

Several federal statutes prohibit obstruction of justice, but the proof elements necessary for a conviction are the same for each one. First, the defendant must have committed an “obstructive act.” Any act can be obstructive if it has the potential to block, render more difficult or hinder a proceeding.  An effort to influence a proceeding can be an obstructive act, even if done subtly, cleverly, or with “cloaking of purpose.” And an improper motive can render conduct criminal even when the conduct would otherwise be lawful and within the actor’s authority. A conviction for obstruction of justice does not depend on the success of the obstructive act.

Second, there must be a connection between the obstructive act and an official proceeding. One statute requires a connection to judicial or grand jury proceedings. Another requires a connection to a “pending” federal agency proceeding or congressional inquiry. Still another requires a connection to an official proceeding that need not be pending or about to be instituted at the time of the offense. The obstructive act must be objectively likely to obstruct the proceeding and the actor must subjectively contemplate a particular proceeding he hopes to influence.

Finally, the act must be done with corrupt intent, meaning “knowingly and dishonestly” or “with improper motive.” This element is satisfied when the actor had the intent to obtain an improper advantage for himself inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others.

Using this framework, the report analyzes ten categories of conduct by the President. I will focus on two of these.

The Termination of FBI Director James Comey.

Immediately after he took office, President Trump began an effort to influence and control FBI Director James Comey. On January 27, Trump invited Comey to dinner at the White House and asked him repeatedly whether he wanted to remain as Director. At the end of the dinner Trump told Comey “I need loyalty.” Then in February following Michael Flynn’s forced resignation, Trump spoke in private with Comey – but only after clearing the room of everyone else.  Trump said “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He’s a good guy.”

Twice in testimony before Congress – March 20, 2017 and May 3, 2017 – Comey declined to answer questions about whether the FBI investigators had ruled out anyone in the Trump Administration, including the President. Trump was furious.

Over the weekend of May 5, Trump decided to fire Comey and began the draft of a letter doing so. The draft specifically referred to the Russia investigation and that Trump was not a target. On May 8, Trump informed his staff, as well as Attorney General Sessions and Assistant Attorney General Rosenstein, that the decision had been made. Rosenstein offered to write a memo recommending that Comey be removed because of poor handling of the Clinton email issue, but the resulting memo did not mention the Russia investigation. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017.

Firing Comey was an obstructive act. It had the natural and probable effect of impeding the investigation by delay and disruption. It had the natural tendency to chill and discourage other investigators. Trump followed the firing with public statements that heaped scorn on the investigation, calling it a witch hunt, among other things. These actions had the potential to affect a successor director’s conduct. Firing Comey had the necessary connection to the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling, which could have and did result in indictments. In addition, Trump knew that Flynn was under investigation and asked Comey to “let Flynn go.”

Finally, Trump’s firing of Comey was in response to Comey’s unwillingness to state publicly that Trump was not a target of the investigation. Substantial evidence indicates that the intent behind this was to protect Trump himself and the campaign from investigation. As soon as Flynn became a target, Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty. He was furious when Jeff Sessions recused himself. Trump knew that the investigation could uncover his dealings with the Russians concerning a Trump Tower in Moscow, which continued up until June 2016.

Trump dictated a press release about the firing that falsely said it was in response to a recommendation from Rosenstein. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders then falsely told reporters that Rosenstein “on his own” decided to come to the President about his concerns with Comey. But because of push-back from the Department of Justice that the firing was not Rosenstein’s idea, a new narrative was developed. During an interview with Lester Holt on NBC on May 11, Trump admitted that he had made the decision to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation from Rosenstein, saying “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” The initial pretextual reason offered by Trump for the firing adds to the intent element because it shows he had concerns about the true reason.

Trump’s Efforts to Remove Mueller

It is hard to overstate the effect that the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller had on Trump. According to notes taken by a person present at the meeting where Trump was told of the appointment, the President said “Oh my God, This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” Trump berated Attorney General Session for leaving him exposed to a Special Counsel.

Trump immediately claimed that Mueller had conflicts of interest but Steve Bannon and others told him the alleged conflicts were “ridiculous and petty.” On June 14, 2017, The Washington Post reported that the Special Counsel was investigating whether the President had attempted to obstruct justice. The following morning Trump issues a tweet storm criticizing this new development, calling the investigation “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American history – led by some very bad and conflicted people.”

On Saturday, June 17, 2017, Trump called White House Counsel at home Don McGahn and directed him to have Mueller removed. McGahn failed to carry out this instruction, so Trump called a second time.  In this call he said “Call Rod [Rosenstein], tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be Special Counsel. Mueller has to go. Call me back when you do it.”  Instead of carrying out these instructions, McGahn was prepared to resign. Through the intervention of other White House staff, McGahn was convinced to stay and Mueller was not fired.

The Mueller Report makes quite clear that the attempt to remove the Special Counsel would be an obstructive act. Removal would delay further activity and chill the actions of any replacement Special Counsel. And, since Trump knew his actions were now under investigation by the Special Counsel, there is a connection to a potential judicial proceeding. Intent is shown by the sequence of events. On June 13, Rosenstein testified before Congress that there was no cause to remove Mueller and Trump dictated a press release that he had no intention of firing Mueller. The next day the media reported Trump was under investigation. Trump immediately began calling McGahn for the purpose of having Mueller removed.

Implications for an Impeachment Inquiry

Robert Mueller handed the issue of President Trump’s potential criminal liability to Congress for the only proceeding available to try a sitting President – impeachment. Impeachment is not a criminal trial, rather it is a political one. The Constitution says that a President may be impeached for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” To remove Trump, his conduct need not actually constitute a chargeable crime. Some acts, say a gross violation of the Emoluments Clause, are impeachable even though they are not crimes. And not every crime is a “high crime or misdemeanor” as we saw in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Scholars and constitutional lawyers agree that a “high crime or misdemeanor” is an abuse of power by a high official that constitutes an offense against the state or a violation of the public trust. In an impeachment proceeding, it should not matter whether we agree with Trump’s policies and decisions. The sole question should be whether he has inflicted a serious political injury to the country through an abuse of power enabled by his high office. Does removing one chief investigator inquiring into Trump’s own conduct, and threatening the removal of another, rise to that level? We may soon find out.

Impeachment Trial of Justice Elizabeth Walker – Day Two

The historic impeachment trial of Justice Beth Walker resumed on October 2, 2018. This trial day was short, consisting of only one witness called by the House impeachment managers and closing arguments by the parties.

The West Virginia Constitution declares that “any officer of the state may be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.” Walker has been charged in the Articles of Impeachment, which were broadly drafted to cover the conduct of the four Justices involved, in this language:

[Walker] did, in the absence of any policy to prevent or control expenditure, waste state funds with little or no concern for the costs to be borne by the tax payers for unnecessary and lavish spending for various purposes including, but without limitation, . . . to remodel state offices, [and] for regular lunches from restaurants.

Walker’s conduct described at the trial could only conceivably fall into the categories of maladministration or neglect of duty. If she has committed offenses, it is hard to see how they could rise to the level of a high crimes and misdemeanors, which are limited to serious offenses against the state like treason.

The trial has been presided over by Judge Paul T. Farrell, a Circuit Judge from Huntington who was appointed temporarily to fill the seat of suspended Chief Justice Loughry.  Farrell is Acting Chief Justice for the purpose of the impeachment trial. In his October 1 charge to the assembled Senate, which is functioning as the “court of impeachment,” Farrell said:

This is your decision and your decision alone . . . I urge you all to be West Virginians. Not Democrats, not Republicans, simply West Virginians, and base your decisions on what is best for the state of West Virginia and what is fair not only to Justice Walker, but what is fair to the House members who have brought these charges.

The witness called today was Mike McKown, former State Budget Director. He testified that the state was required to adjust its budget mid-year in FY 2017, which required almost all state agencies to take significant cuts. Because the budget for the Supreme Court of Appeals is not controlled by the Legislature, no budget cuts were imposed on the Court. Instead House managers emphasized these cuts as context within which to view Walker’s “excessive” spending to renovate her office.

In the closing argument from the House impeachment managers, Senators were asked to consider that Walker continued participating in state-paid lunches until a FOIA request was made about them, and to weigh heavily what she did “when no one was looking.” As for the renovations to her office, House managers argued that while everyone else in the state government was required to tighten their belts, Walker was spending money for a cosmetic renovation of her office rest room that benefitted nobody but her. Using a golf analogy, the House managers argued that Walker was asking for mulligans (extra chances) when she apologized and expressed regret.

Walker’s counsel argued that since she didn’t take office until January 1, 2017 she was not responsible for policies that were adopted before, especially since she had no power as an individual Justice to change them. He pointed out that she had been the sole Justice to vote against substantial salary increases for the Court’s staff during the 2017 budget crisis. While the House managers had suggested that ethical standards applying to lawyers should also apply to Justices in impeachment proceedings, Walker’s attorney argued well that lawyer disciplinary rules and “best practices” are not incorporated into the state’s Constitution as standards by which to remove a Constitutional officer.

At about 12:50 p.m., the court of impeachment was called back into session and Senators cast their ballots through the electronic voting system. An aye was a vote in favor of sustaining the articles of impeachment; a nay was a vote rejecting them. The vote tally showed one aye and thirty-two nays. The lone aye vote was cast by Senator Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier). Chief Justice Farrell declared the articles of impeachment rejected as to Justice Walker and dismissed the proceedings.

However, Senators gathered in regular session shortly after the impeachment vote and agreed to censure Justice Walker. The censure is, in effect, an admonishment that will not affect her tenure in office.

Impeachment Trial of Justice Elizabeth Walker – Day One

Beth Walker is the first of four Justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to face an impeachment trial in the state Senate.  Her trial began Monday, October 1, 2018. She is alleged to have failed to control wasteful spending on working lunches which the Justices enjoyed on argument days and other days when there were administrative of judicial conferences. She is also alleged to have wastefully spent $130,000 on the renovation of her office.

Regarding the lunches, the House impeachment managers sought to show that court employees such as security guards and clerks who were not working directly on legal matters shared in the lunches. They further showed that the lunches were purchased, not from fast food restaurants or the Capitol cafeteria, but rather at “upscale” restaurants in Charleston. The average cost of one of these lunches was $16.77 with tip. This is somewhat more than the $13 GSA per diem for federal employee travel reimbursement in Charleston. The GSA rates were incorporated by reference into the 2016 and 2018 versions of the Supreme Court of Appeals travel policy. The House impeachment managers will argue that the GSA rates should apply to working lunches that did not involve travel.

Justice Walker was not initially concerned about whether it was appropriate for her and other Justices to enjoy working lunches paid for by the state because, as an employment lawyer for 26 years, she knew that employer-paid working lunches were typical and not considered income to the employee. For that reason, she testified, that accepting these lunches was not illegal and did not cause her total compensation to exceed the $136,000 authorized by law.

When another Justice began not participating in the lunches, Walker also began to have some personal concerns and requested the total amount spent on these lunches in 2017. When she ultimately got these figures she repaid the state 1/5 of the total. Walker maintains there was nothing ethically wrong about these lunches but that she simply decided as a personal matter not to participate. The House impeachment managers pointed out that her personal concern did not begin until the “spotlight” of a FOIA request was shined on the practice. But the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission exonerated Walker of any wrongdoing in connection with the lunches.

Walker replaced Justice Benjamin, to whose former office she was assigned. Although she could have requested used furniture from storage, she proceeded with a design contract with an outside firm. This was not out of the ordinary as Justices typically do not ask for used furniture for their offices. The outside design firm chosen was low bidder, but the price it proposed was later raised in a change order. Walker’s objective was to have an office that was functional, brighter than Benjamin’s dark office had been and a place where she and her clerks could work comfortably. The House impeachment managers sought to show that when the renovation money spent by Benjamin in 2010 is added to the amount spent by Walker in 2017, it was the second highest amount among all. Although she testified that she regretted overspending taxpayer funds on her office she admitted that she had not repaid these excess costs.

As an Associate Justice who began her term on January 1 2017, Walker was not involved in the adoption or failure to adopt policies on taxable fringe benefits, the use of state charge cards, home offices, or the inventory of state property. The Court’s Chief Financial Officer testified that individual Justices were not able to issue or modify Court policies. Walker was not paid a per diem by the state for days when she worked; she did not use a state car; she never asked for reimbursement for mileage in her personal car; and she never used a state credit card.  She paid for her judicial robe and catering at her swearing in ceremony out of her own pocket.

Walker was contrite about the working lunch allegation and office renovation overspending.  She apologized to the assembled legislators and the state taxpayers.  She admits that she should have been more aware and sensitive about overspending.  However, she does not believe these things amount to grounds to remove her from office. She believes she can contribute to the restoration of public confidence in the court.

On Day 2, the House impeachment managers will call one additional witness and then Walker’s attorneys will call witnesses.

Kavanaugh’s Disqualifying Flaw

Yesterday, much of the country was riveted to their televisions, or other devices, watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I went a number of places last evening and this was all anyone could talk about. The ostensible issue is whether Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, committed a sexual assault on Ford in 1982 as she claims. The larger and more important issue is what kind of person should serve on the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, the way the inquiry was set up we are really unable to determine whether Kavanaugh did it. The Senate Judiciary Committee is not a court of law. The devices we have honed over centuries for finding the truth, notably compelling witnesses to testify and then cross-examining them, were not used. Ford and Kavanaugh each got an opening statement and then were subject to questions from Senators. Republican Senators ceded their opportunity to question Ford to a prosecutor specially retained for this purpose. Ford answered whatever questions were asked of her and seemed to be genuinely trying to help the process. Kavanaugh was combative, answering the questions from “friendly” interrogators but arguing with Democratic Senators and frequently interrupting them. Committee Chairman Charles Grassley ran the proceeding as a political spectacle not a trial.

Republican Senators were upset that Kavanaugh has been put in this position. They repeatedly questioned the motivation of Ranking Member Diane Feinstein for holding onto Ford’s letter, in which she initially raised the allegation, until after Kavanaugh’s vetting process had nearly gotten to its end. They might have a legitimate point about this, but that point doesn’t go to whether Kavanaugh is actually guilty of sexual assault or whether he is appropriate for the Supreme Court. Instead it simply complains about the partisan behavior that pervades everything these days, of which the Republicans are equally guilty.

To be fair about this, I confess I don’t know whether Kavanaugh did it. Each witness was 100% certain that his or her own story was correct and the other’s was wrong. Ford’s testimony was compelling.  She did not say or behave in any way that suggests she is making the story up or that she has a political axe to grind. After all, the letter in which she raised the allegation against Kavanaugh was written at the point when Kavanaugh was one of several on Trump’s list for consideration and before he was actually nominated. She had nothing to do with the manner in which the allegations were brought forward by Feinstein and the Democrats. In fact, she asked for confidentiality and is as much a victim of the circus as Kavanaugh. There are holes in her recollection but she didn’t try to fill them in to make the story better or more complete.

Kavanaugh’s anger and emotion were also genuine, which perhaps suggests that he is telling the truth as he believes it. He repeatedly pointed out that the three other people whom Ford says were present at the party cannot confirm it took place. He presented a calendar from high school in which he listed the places he planned to be and showed how after these events he wrote in who had been present. There is no meeting or party listed of the sort that Ford alleges. He also pointed to a lot of women who would attest to his character, although this kind of evidence is rarely allowed in court because how one behaves in other circumstances is not proof that he acted in the same way in the circumstance in question.

There are a number of other things that could be said for and against the stories of Ford and Kavanaugh. But we are not going to get any other facts or testimony because the Republicans are resisting the call of the Democrats for an FBI investigation of the allegations. They feel this is just a ploy on the part of the Democrats to delay the vote on the nomination until after the mid-term elections in November. Perhaps they can now understand the Democrat’s fury at the refusal of Mitch McConnell to bring forward President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland until after the 2016 election.

In any event, if the objective is to find the truth then more information rather than less is appropriate. Kavanaugh, who has been a federal judge for twelve years, repeatedly dodged the question of whether he wanted an FBI investigation. Clearly, if such an investigation provided no corroboration for Ford, then Kavanaugh would sail through the nomination vote. Instead, it almost looks like he and the Republicans are afraid of what would be learned if the FBI interviewed Mark Judge and others. So I don’t think the Republicans are interested in the truth so much as getting their nominee across the line. And maybe Democrats really don’t care as much about the truth as preventing this.

Even Chairman Grassley conceded that if Ford’s allegations are true it would be disqualifying for Kavanaugh. Nobody disputed this. Yet after yesterday’s hearing any honest broker would have to say that it is possible they are true – that Kavanaugh actually committed the sexual assault. I think the real question the full Senate will confront is whether we are prepared to put someone onto the Supreme Court for life about whom there is this much doubt. Do we care about the integrity of the Supreme Court or not?

For me there is an easier way out of this quagmire. In my view Kavanaugh disqualified himself yesterday when he forcefully claimed that he is the victim of unjust character assassination by the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who only want revenge “for the Clintons.” This is a glimpse into the way Kavanaugh views the world and it is not pretty. The Democrats did not concoct the allegations against him. The Democrats were not the ones seated in front of the Committee telling a believable story of sexual abuse by laughing frat boys. Yet Kavanaugh filters this as something insidiously partisan. Keep in mind that this is a man who evaluates disputes for a living, but when the dispute involves him he sees nothing but a nefarious plot by his political foes. His mode of thinking and his combative way of presenting it speak volumes about how fair and even handed he could be on the Supreme Court. You can bet that as a Justice he would scorch Democrats and their concerns as his own revenge. The Senate proceeding was not perfect as a truth finding process, but the stress it created exposed Kavanaugh’s disqualifying flaw.

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

Impeachment of the President has occurred twice in American history and was preempted in a third case by the resignation of the President. This little-used mechanism of republican government has recently been on the lips of many, fueled by an unpopular President and a special counsel investigation into the conduct of his subordinates. If a President is impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate, he or she is removed from office, but may be subject to later criminal prosecution. The constitutional grounds for impeachment are “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Treason is defined in the Constitution itself and bribery has a clear legal meaning. But what are high crimes and misdemeanors?

I am certainly not a constitutional scholar, but the answer to this question and much more can be found in several sources. Most useful were Raoul Berger’s Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems (1974) and Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide (2017), by Cass Sunstein. Understanding the history of the language is important.

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, delegates agreed on a unitary executive – the President — who would not share executive power with other officers. But how prevent this President from becoming as oppressive as the king just overthrown? The preliminary solution was that the President would be elected for a term of four years. An abusive or incompetent President would not be re-elected. This did not satisfy skeptics, who argued that much mischief could be accomplished within four years. The final solution was to add the remedy of impeachment, a tool used from time to time by the British Parliament and American colonial legislatures to control abusive royal ministers.

Checks and balances on the potential misuse of power are everywhere built into the Constitution. The idea that Congress could remove the President through impeachment worried James Madison and others who feared the legislative branch would have too much power and that the President would end up serving at the pleasure of Congress. This concern was driven by initial drafts of the impeachment clause that included “maladministration” as a ground.

But through Madison’s arguments, the convention moved from this broad language toward the notion that the President should be impeachable only for a narrow and specified category of abuses of the public trust. Madison proposed treason and bribery as the sole grounds for impeachment. The terms “high crimes and misdemeanors” were added near the end of the debate to satisfy George Mason, who argued that treason would not reach many great and dangerous offenses. There was no discussion on what the terms meant.

There was no discussion because “high crimes and misdemeanors” had an accepted meaning at the time with which these delegates were familiar. The terms had been in use in English political life since 1642. Here in a nutshell is what these terms mean.

  • The terms high crimes and misdemeanors do not refer to criminal conduct in the ordinary sense. Criminal conduct on the part of the President is neither necessary nor sufficient for impeachment. There was no such crime as a misdemeanor when the terms were first in use – petty crimes were called trespasses. High crimes and misdemeanors may be also be criminal, such as bribery, but lots more is covered.
  • The non-criminal nature of impeachment is confirmed by other parts of the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that no person shall be subject to double jeopardy for the same offense. Because the impeachment provision declares that a convicted President can be subject to later criminal prosecution, impeachment was clearly meant as a non-criminal proceeding. Furthermore, while a criminal defendant is guaranteed the right to a trial by jury by the Sixth Amendment, a President is tried by the Senate.
  • High crimes and misdemeanors are political offenses against the state, and impeachment is designed to secure the state not punish the offender. Impeachment has been reserved for gross abuses of power or violations of the public trust. Remember that impeachment was used mainly to rid the state of the king’s corrupt ministers, who were not subject to the normal criminal process.
  • The modifier “high” refers both to the position of the offender and the seriousness of the offense. Impeachment is reserved for especially serious offenses. Only officers in high positions of trust can commit these egregious political offenses.
  • Intense political opposition and a general sense that the President is a failure are not sufficient grounds for impeachment. Nor is a sense that the President’s policies are wrong and harmful to the nation. If these points were not true, both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush would have been impeached.
  • Because high crimes and misdemeanors are political crimes that cannot be committed by someone who does not hold high political office, they do not include reprehensible conduct committed before a President is elected, unless the conduct procured his or her election. An example might be some fraud or misconduct by the candidate that improperly influenced the election, like the Watergate bugging cover-up by President Nixon.

Arguing for the impeachment of Justice William O. Douglas in 1970, then-Congressman Gerald Ford famously asserted that “an impeachable offense” is whatever the House, with the concurrence of the Senate, “considers it to be at a given moment in history.” But this view is wrong. The terms high crimes and misdemeanors have a relatively precise meaning that was intended, in part, to limit the availability of impeachment. When considering this limit, the two actual impeachments of sitting Presidents were probably unconstitutional.

President Andrew Johnson was a Southerner who oversaw Reconstruction with a galling sympathy for the South. He was hugely unpopular for this. But his impeachment in 1868 was specifically for firing Secretary of War Stanton in violation of a statute passed by Congress to prevent him from firing Stanton. Johnson in good faith believed he had the right to fire officials who worked for him and that the statute was unconstitutional. This position was later vindicated by the Supreme Court. Johnson avoided conviction in the Senate by a single vote. This is an example of an intense disagreement between Congress and the President over matters of policy and law, which are rather frequent and are not egregious abuses of power simply because a majority of Congressmen might say they are.

When President Bill Clinton was impeached, he was a relatively popular President who had implacable opposition among Republicans. They believed him to be a liar and relentlessly sought grounds to impeach him. Recall that Kenneth Starr produced an investigatory report that focused on Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his efforts to cover it up by lying to his wife, his staff, the Cabinet and the American people. But Cass Sunstein remarks that

the impeachment of Bill Clinton is almost incomprehensible, at least if it is explored in the light of the debates in the late eighteenth century. You would have to work really hard to make a minimally plausible argument that Clinton committed an impeachable offense.

Clinton did lie under oath about his affair and this is unlawful, but it wasn’t an impeachable offense because it was not an abuse of his Presidential authority. It was a tawdry offense that practically anyone could commit.

One thing common to these two impeachments was the extreme factionalism in Congress at the time. In Federalist No. 65, Hamilton noted

the prosecution of [political offenses] will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of the parties than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

Factionalism and passion will always be present in the midst of supercharged political issues, but in our present situation it will do nothing but get in the way of sound judgment.

Some commentators have argued that we have been too timid in the use of the impeachment mechanism. In an excellent opinion piece in the online journal Vox, published on November 30, 2017, Ezra Klein observes

There are plenty of people who simply should not be president of a nuclear hyperpower, and Trump is one of them . . . . We have grown too afraid of the consequences of impeachment and too complacent about the consequences of leaving an unfit president in office. If the worst happens, and Trump’s presidency results in calamity, we will have no excuse, no answer to give. This is an emergency. We should break the glass.

The piece concludes with a proposition at odds with the original meaning of the impeachment clause: “being extremely bad at the job of president of the United States should be enough to get you fired.”

However, events are moving quickly and there may be more to consider than bad job performance. Two days after this post was originally written, Trump’s former national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, and according to the Washington Post “court records indicate he was acting under instructions from senior Trump transition officials in his dealings with the diplomat.” Working in tandem with a foreign power to defeat a political adversary in a contest for the Presidency, and then attempting to obstruct an investigation into it, or to cover it up, is a “high crime and misdemeanor” in the true, original sense.

The best approach may be to consider only the actions said to be the basis of the potential impeachment behind an imaginary veil of ignorance about the President and his policies. It should not matter whether we agree with his policies and decisions. The sole question should be whether he has inflicted a serious political injury to the country, an abuse of power, enabled by his high office. Put another way, would we consider Trump’s actions to be a gross abuse of Presidential power if committed by a President whose policies we supported? If the answer is yes, then he should be removed.

Partisan Gerrymandering and the Constitution III

This is the third and final in a series of posts on the issue of political gerrymandering as raised in Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case the Republican majority of the legislature intentionally redrew state district boundaries to ensure that in the future Republicans won a majority of seats even when Democrats prevailed in the state-wide popular vote. The Democrat challengers in court claimed that their rights to free association and speech under the First Amendment and their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated by this. How the Supreme Court resolves this case will determine how well our democracy works for decades.

Recall that a test has never been found that reliably distinguishes the acceptable application of political power in drawing district boundaries from unconstitutional vote dilution. For that reason, courts have repeatedly expressed skepticism about whether political gerrymandering cases are justiciable – capable of being decided consistently and fairly.

This shouldn’t be a Republican versus Democrat issue in the traditional sense because either party can be disadvantaged by political gerrymandering. But it is an issue that divides conservative jurists from more liberal ones. During the argument of Gill before the Supreme Court, the four conservative Justices emphasized lack of justiciability and staked their position that gerrymandering is a political issue that has no judicial solution. Chief Justice Roberts was concerned that invalidating the gerrymandering in Wisconsin would lead to a wave of these cases reaching the Supreme Court since, unlike most cases, the Court is required to hear redistricting cases. This, argued Roberts, would draw the Court too much into the political realm reserved for the legislative branch.

On the other hand, the four liberal Justices emphasized the damage to individual rights created by gerrymandering and seemed more open to judicial intervention. Justice Ginsburg told the lawyer from Wisconsin that the case involved “the precious right to vote” and speculated that if the result of an election were preordained because of gerrymandering the people would lose their incentive to go to the polls.

Justice Anthony Kennedy occupied the middle ground, as he does on so many issues, and seemed supportive of the challengers’ social science approach as perhaps finally providing a satisfactory tool for judging these cases.

The challengers proposed two major methods by which to test partisan gerrymandering. These would work in tandem. The first is called “partisan symmetry.” It is based on the idea that the electoral system should treat similarly-situated parties equally so that they are able to translate their popular support into legislative representation with approximately equal ease. Asymmetry is found where there is a marked difference between the number of seats each party would win in the hypothetical election where the popular vote is split equally.

The challengers showed at trial that over the three elections in Wisconsin after redistricting, Republicans would have won between 61.6% and 62.7% of the seats if the state-wide popular vote had been perfectly tied.

The second test proposed by the challengers is what they called “the efficiency test,” a mixture of political science and statistics. This test analyzes actual elections. Gerrymandering works either to “pack” or “crack” districts of the victimized party. Packing is to transfer to a district already partial to one party voters from that same party. The transferred voters no longer pose a threat to the other party in the district from which they came and are unnecessary to elect their party’s candidate in their new home district. Cracking is to split a district heavy with voters of one party and transfer them to districts where they will be in the minority and can no longer elect their candidate of choice. The efficiency test treats votes as “wasted” in a district if they are more than required to elect a favored candidate (packing) or if they are cast for a losing candidate (cracking).

The challengers showed at trial that votes for Democratic candidates were wasted at a rate of from 9.6 to 13.3 percentage points higher than the rate at which Republican votes were wasted.

Both these tests start from the proposition that registered Democrats will vote for Democrat candidates and registered Republicans will vote for candidates from their party. Skeptics argue that this makes the tests proposed by the challengers nothing more than disguised tests of proportionality – assuming that results are constitutional only when they reflect the size of the voter group under consideration. That would ignore what legitimately occurs when a charismatic candidate from one party draws votes from registered voters of the other party. The challengers answer this criticism by pointing out that their statistical arguments are based on many races in many districts over many election cycles, which evens out the anomalies.

In the long run, this case may be decided on a more straightforward issue that does not get into the weeds of political science and legal tests. Justice Sotomayor asked the lawyer for Wisconsin “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering? How does that help our system of government?” The lawyer had no satisfactory answer.

Partisan Gerrymandering and the Constitution II

Today, October 3, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Gill v. Whitford, in which the Wisconsin legislature was caught red-handed manipulating the state’s voting districts to ensure that Republicans retain control for a decade, even if they lose the state-wide popular vote. The process by which the legislature did this was secret – the redistricting plan was drafted in a conference room of a private law firm with the aid of sophisticated software. Democrats were totally excluded from the process. Much of the damning evidence came to light when recall elections involving several state senators briefly put the Democrats back in control. Since the law firm represented the legislature itself, not the former Republican majority, the new Democratic majority instructed the lawyers to release the records of how the gerrymandering was done. What spilled forth should make the hair stand on the back of your neck.

Lest we Democrats feel righteously indignant about this conduct by Republicans, keep in mind that there is pending litigation in Maryland alleging that the Democrat majority engaged in similar partisan gerrymandering. Concern about the ill effects of partisan gerrymandering is shared by both sides of the political spectrum. The “friend of court” briefs filed in Gill v. Whitford demonstrate a range of opinions even among Republicans. One such brief filed by the National Republican Congressional Committee urged the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court, which had found the gerrymandering unconstitutional. Another filed by Republican Statewide Officials, including luminaries such as Bill Brock, Bob Dole and Richard Lugar, urged the Supreme Court to reject blatant partisan gerrymandering by affirming the lower court.

The Supreme Court never makes wild leaps into unknown territory. We have a common law system in which the law builds incrementally upon past decisions. The litigants attempt to show that their side is most consistent with prior precedent. The Court carefully attempts to justify each new decision by some earlier decisions or application of law. Rarely are prior decisions directly overturned. Accordingly, the Supreme Court’s previous decisions on partisan gerrymandering are the starting point for understanding what will happen when the Court decides Gill v. Whitford.

There are two prior decisions of importance. The first is Davis v. Bandemer (1986), in which a redistricting plan in Indiana was challenged by Democrats who claimed that their voting power as a group had been subverted in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The big question in the case was whether this claim was “justiciable,” meaning whether a test could be found enabling courts to distinguish unconstitutional vote dilution from the acceptable exercise of political power by the majority party.

Although the principle of “one person, one vote” was well-established by 1986 and racially motivated gerrymandering was clearly illegal, four Justices in Davis said that the claim by a state-wide voter group was not justiciable. “A group’s electoral power is not unconstitutionally diminished by the fact that an apportionment scheme makes winning elections more difficult, and a failure of proportional representation will not be sufficient” to violate equal protection.

A fifth Justice argued that the claim in Davis could be decided because there was no significant difference between vote dilution affecting individuals and voter groups. But he agreed that the claim should be rejected on the narrower ground that there was insufficient proof of a violation under a test that he proposed as the correct one. His test required a showing (1) of legislative intent to deprive a voter group of equal power to elect representatives, and (2) an enduring effect on that voter group extending over more than one election cycle. But, according to him, that enduring effect cannot be proved by mere disproportionality between the size of the victimized group and the number of representatives they elect.

Confused? So was every court that tried to apply this test for the next eighteen years. In fact, every lower federal court that attempted to do so threw up its hands and concluded that partisan gerrymandering claims were impossible to judge. In the second case of importance, Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004), four Justices of the Supreme Court ruled that equal protection claims on behalf of state-wide voter groups were never justiciable because no workable standard for judging them had emerged. They declined to adopt the standard in Davis, saying it “was misguided when proposed, has not been improved in subsequent application, and is not even defended before us today by [the challengers].”

But four Justices do not make up a majority of the Supreme Court, and the fifth Justice who concurred with the four nay-sayers in Veith – Justice Kennedy – is still on the Court and will be critical to the decision in the present case from Wisconsin. Kennedy left a crack in the door for finding a test by which to judge equal protection vote dilution claims on behalf of state-wide voter groups:

I would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases.

For Kennedy, employing political classifications in redistricting is not itself unconstitutional, but doing so in an invidious manner or in a way unrelated to any legitimate legislative objective might be. He warned that if courts refuse to entertain any claims of partisan gerrymandering, the temptation for legislators to use partisan favoritism will grow.

This was prophetic. After the 2010 census, state legislatures went on a binge of partisan gerrymandering in the drawing of state and Congressional district lines unseen in the decades before. In Gerrymandering in America (2016), Anthony McGann and his co-authors say:

partisan bias increased sharply in the 2010 [Congressional] districting round. We find the bias of the House of Representatives in 2012 was around 9%. Roughly speaking, this means that if there were a 50/50 vote split, one party would win 55% of the seats, while the other would get 45%. This compares to a 3% bias in the 2002 redistricting round. In many individual states the bias is far, far greater . . . . There are numerous states where . . . one party can win between two-thirds to three-quarters of the seats with only half the votes.

The pressure on the Supreme Court to come to grips with this profoundly undemocratic situation will be substantial. And, as I hope to explain in the next post on this topic, the challengers to the Wisconsin redistricting may very well have the evidentiary approach that can attract a solid majority of the Court.

One more thing. It may surprise West Virginia readers of this post that our state has filed a friend of the court brief in Gill v. Whitford. Decisions to file briefs are made by the Attorney General, in this case by the arch-conservative Partick Morrisey, who has announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for Governor. In the brief, West Virginia takes the position that “there is nothing inherently suspect, invidious, or irrational about a legislature using partisan purpose when redistricting.” This presumably reflects the confidence of the West Virginia Republican Party that it is safely in the majority. But what seems appropriate in redistricting is in the eye of the beholder. And, of course, the worm can turn.

Partisan Gerrymandering and the Constitution

On October 3, 2017, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Gill v. Whitford. This case raises the question of whether gross partisan gerrymandering by the Wisconsin state legislature in creating state voting districts violates any provision of the U.S. Constitution. Partisan gerrymandering – intentionally drawing voting district lines to favor one party or the other – has seen a sharp increase since the redistricting that followed the 2010 census. Many observers believe that partisan gerrymandering is to blame for much of the gridlock in Congress and the state legislatures because highly partisan districts elect highly partisan representatives who have no political room to compromise. The old legal wisdom is that for every wrong there is a remedy, so you would expect that this case would be a slam-dunk for those challenging the Wisconsin redistricting in the Supreme Court. But you would be wrong.

Appendix AFirst, some basics. The constitutions of each state determine the number of state Senators and Delegates assigned to voting districts and the apportionment of the state’s population into those districts. In West Virginia the House of Delegates is composed of a fixed 100 members, each theoretically representing 1/100 of the state’s population. But instead of there being 100 districts, our legislature has created 67 districts some of which elect multiple Delegates. (Appendix A). All Delegates face re-election every two years.

There are two Senators from each of seventeen senatorial districts for a total of thirty four. According to the West Virginia Constitution, senatorial districts “shall be compact, formed of contiguous territory, bounded by county lines, and, as nearly as possible, equal in population, to be ascertained by the census of the United States.” (Appendix B). There is no such language relating to House districts. Senate terms are four years and elections are staggered so that a portion of senators faces re-election every two years.

Appendix BState legislatures also draw each state’s Congressional district boundaries, which must be revisited every ten years immediately after the census. West Virginia has had three Congressional districts for several decades, but their boundaries have changed slightly over time to reflect the shift in population to the Eastern Panhandle and Monongalia County. The U.S. Constitution and its Amendments determine who can vote in federal elections. But as for how districts are constituted, it merely says that “Representatives . . . shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers” and that “the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.”

The basic requirement of Congressional apportionment that each district have an approximately equal population is consistent with the 5th Amendment’s promise of equal protection of the law. For example, if District A has a population of 750,000 and District B has a population of 800,000, then voters in B have an incrementally less powerful vote. That same principle was made applicable to the states by the 14th Amendment, ratified after the Civil War. In a series of cases in the 1960s, the Supreme Court announced that “equal protection” in the context of state legislative district apportionment meant “one person, one vote.” For example, in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Court said:

To the extent that a citizen’s right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen. The fact that an individual lives here or there is not a legitimate reason for overweighting or diluting the efficacy of his vote. . . . By holding that as a federal constitutional requisite both houses of a state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis, we mean that the Equal Protection Clause requires that a State make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable.

But if all equal protection requires is districts of equal population, there is still an infinite number of ways to divide a state’s population into roughly equal segments. The development of software that predicts the likely election consequences of moving even small groups of voters from one district to another has tempted legislatures to find just those configurations that maximize the likely future success of the party in power, while still satisfying the equal population requirement. The Republican legislators in Wisconsin sorted through multiple proposed district maps with the use of redistricting software and the help of political science experts until they found the one they believed would best ensure their control of the legislature for an entire decade even if they were to lose the popular state-wide vote.

The challengers to this plan in Wisconsin were numerous individuals and groups acting on behalf of Democrat voters in the state. There is a subtle but significant difference between protecting an individual voter from the dilution of her vote and protecting a subset of the whole voting population – registered Democrats – from being deprived of a proportionately equal chance to elect Democrat candidates. This difference raises the question of whether the Equal Protection Clause even applies to state-wide voter groups? If it does, are all such groups entitled to equal protection? If Democrats and Republicans as distinct voter groups are entitled to equal protection, how about the Green Party or the American Nazi Party? This is one thing that makes the issues raised in the Wisconsin case so difficult for courts to get their minds around.

There is even a more fundamental legal question the Court must answer before deciding whether the Equal Protection Clause prevents partisan gerrymandering. That question is “justiciability” – whether a clear rule can be found delineating what is acceptable from unacceptable in the drawing of district boundaries and whether courts should step into the political arena at all in view of the separation of powers. In my next post, I will explain why partisan gerrymandering greatly intensified after the Supreme Court’s last pronouncement on these issues in 2010, and where the law now stands on the issues presented in the Wisconsin case.

 

Originalism and the Supreme Court

President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court is Judge Neil Goresuch, who is said to be an Originalist like Justice Scalia, whom he will replace if confirmed.

Originalism is a theory of judicial interpretation that requires the judge to determine what the Constitution meant at the time of its enactment. An Originalist does not believe that an interpretive gloss may be added to this meaning to make the outcome better fit the times. In the case of current statutory interpretation, an Originalist focuses solely on the plain meaning of the words used in a statute without resorting to what judges or others may think Congress intended the statute to mean.

Originalism is a respectable principle by which to resolve controversy about textual meaning. But it can lead to absurd results. Suppose some crank decided to sue the United States Air Force on the ground that its very existence is unconstitutional. Absurd, right? Not to an Originalist.

Article I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers granted to Congress. Among them are the power “to raise and support Armies” [12], to “provide and maintain a Navy” [13], and to make rules for governing “the land and naval Forces” [14]. There is not a word about air forces in the Constitution for obvious reasons.

Who could doubt that a judge presented with that suit should dismiss it? Even if the language of the Constitution did not specifically bestow on Congress the power to create and regulate an Air Force, the Founding Fathers would have done so had they been able to conceive of the need for one. And the existing language of the Constitution can be interpreted to give Congress the power. Ah, but this is precisely what Originalists believe should not be done.

In the 1972 case of Laird v. Tatum, Justice Douglas elided the issue by saying that “the Army, Navy, and Air Force are comprehended in the constitutional term ‘armies.’” Really? How can that be? Well, of course, it can’t be if we may only interpret and apply the Constitution as originally meant. But it is more sensible now to broaden the term “armies” beyond what it originally meant. This is an example of holistic interpretation, and why it is the favored approach of most jurists.

Judicial conservatives – Originalists – point out that the Constitution separates powers among the three branches of government and Congress is given the sole power to make laws. If the judicial branch interprets and applies a statute so as to give it a meaning not specified by Congress, aren’t judges making law? And if those judges are liberals, won’t conservatives be unhappy with the substance of the judicially made law? Indeed, and the prime example of this is a woman’s right to an abortion recognized in Roe v. Wade but nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.

Here is the essence of the whole controversy about who sits on the Supreme Court. It is the substance of judicial outcomes that matters, not the interpretive theory they are dressed up in. These outcomes are sometimes politically driven. Judge Goresuch has said that Originalism often leads judges to results they don’t like. Perhaps, but Originalists also sometimes engage in holistic interpretation to reach the result they want, although they tend to construct tortured explanations to deny that they have departed from Originalism. Justice Scalia was famous for this.

It is too early to know what political outcomes Judge Goresuch will favor, but he is unlikely to be worse than Justice Scalia on this point. Judge Goresuch is a careful jurist who does not engage in the bullying and intemperate attacks on those who disagree with him as did Justice Scalia. For that reason alone, he will be an improvement if confirmed.