The Beltway fixture that Republicans have placed in charge of the House Judiciary Committee—i.e., the committee that, by its own description, functions as “the lawyer for the House of Representatives,” and claims an “infrequent but important role in impeachment proceedings”—is ignorant when it comes to the Constitution’s impeachment standard.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) took to one of the Sunday shows to demonstrate his cluelessness. After explaining that “the Constitution is very clear as to what constitutes grounds for impeachment of the president of the United States,” he proceeded to mangle that very clear standard, opining that President Obama “has not committed the kind of criminal acts that call for that.”
In point of fact, no “criminal acts” are necessary before a president may be impeached. The very clear standard the Constitution prescribes calls for impeachment upon the commission of treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. Treason and bribery are, of course, well known criminal acts. As I illustrate in Faithless Execution, “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a term of art borrowed from British law. It does not refer—at least, not necessarily—to criminal acts that violate the penal code. Instead, it captures what Hamilton, in Federalist No. 65, described as:
the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.
The concept conveyed by “high crimes and misdemeanors” is executive maladministration, whether out of imperiousness, corruption or incompetence. In that sense, it is more redolent of military justice offenses than criminal acts that violate the penal code. Like a soldier, one who owes fiduciary responsibility is liable for acts that would not be considered criminal wrongs if committed by an ordinary civilian. Dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming, profound deceitfulness, and the failure to honor an oath, to take a few obvious examples, would qualify as high crimes and misdemeanors even if they might not be indictable offenses if committed by one in whom high public trust was not reposed.