Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Impeachment Is for Serious Government Criminals

I cringed when I read a post by a local citizen suggesting that the mayor of our city should be impeached for his administration's response to the current public works facility controversy. The citizen had discovered that local officials in North Ogden can neither be impeached nor subjected to a recall election. They can, however, be removed through a judicial process if they have committed crimes.

The citizen's writings reminded me once again that many do not understand the purpose or process of impeachment. Moreover, few seem to grasp the gravity of the matter and the long-term damage it wreaks on the political system.

In short, impeachment is for actual criminals. For that matter, it is for those that commit relatively serious crimes — crimes that most citizens think should disqualify the person from holing office. Impeachment is not a tool to be used at a whim to attack one's political opponents.

Impeachment is only the first step in a process. Impeachment is similar to a grand jury indicting a suspected criminal. It is like pressing formal charges in a case. No legal consequences apply unless the impeached individual is convicted. And then the only consequence that can apply is removal from office and disqualification from holding office. (Although criminal and civil suits may also be brought through regular legal channels.)

At the federal level, a sitting U.S. official must be impeached by the House of Representatives. Members of the house vote on each point in a resolution. Only those points that receive a majority of votes are included in the impeachment.

The process next moves to the U.S. Senate, where members from the House of Representatives act as the prosecution. The impeached official is allowed to have legal defenders. Conviction is achieved only when at least a two-thirds majority votes to sustain at least one of the charges brought by the House of Representatives.

The Founders obviously intended it to be very difficult to achieve conviction because of the serious nature of the matter. Impeachment is so serious that at the federal level, only 19 U.S. officials have ever been impeached. Only eight of those were ultimately removed from office, although, three others resigned. The others were acquitted. (The only two U.S. Presidents to be impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were among the acquitted number.)

The citizen that liked the idea of impeaching our mayor could not say that the mayor had committed any crime whatsoever. As noted in my previous post, it seems an awful lot like the mayor is thumbing his nose at a significant number of his constituents. This may be unwise political behavior, but it is hardly illegal.

When an official holding a significant political office is impeached, it generates a high level of public ill will. It discredits our system in the minds of many citizens. Of course, if the individual has committed notable and widely condemned crimes, it is certainly in the best interest of the people for impeachment to go forward.

But short of this standard, the ballot box is the best place for ousting political officials that we feel should not hold an office. Even after acrimonious campaigns, the regular pattern is for power to be transferred in an orderly and peaceable manner when an incumbent loses. Although some may harbor ill will toward and refuse to support the winner, most quickly recognize the winner's legitimacy.

Impeachment, especially of chief executives of governmental entities, tends to cause negative ripples throughout the system that impact the public psyche for entire generations. That is one reason that impeachment should be rare enough to be reserved for fairly serious crimes.

Some of my city's residents are understandably upset about the mayor's handling of the public works facility issue. Given that Mayor Harris' term expires on 1/1/2014, the citizens will have to put up with him for at least 28+ months. Two years from now public passion on this matter may have dropped enough to allow the mayor to cruise to an easy re-election. Thus, it is also understandable that the mayor's opponents would like to see him ousted sooner rather than trying to beat him at the ballot box later.

But even if impeachment were an option in our city, nothing that we know of that the mayor has done rises even to the minimum standards required for impeachment, let alone the higher de facto standards that have evolved over the years. Unless the mayor's opponents know something I don't know, the mayor is at no risk of being removed through a judicial proceeding.

The mayor's opponents should give up on trying to find a way to remove him from office before the end of his term. They should focus instead on the upcoming election where they have a chance of ousting three council members that support the mayor's actions. Then they should cultivate a candidate that has a chance of beating the mayor in 2013. They have two years to get that campaign put together.

In other words, the mayor's opponents should take the long view and focus their efforts on activities that have a plausible chance of succeeding instead of angrily lashing out in ways that will produce no positive political results.

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