Too Late for Justice?January 11th, 2008

Most people seem to be pretty much satisfied that the current president and vice-president have acted criminally, but the citizenry doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to do anything about it. Some say that with just a year left in their term of office, it’s too late for justice for these guys. Impeachment would take forever, they argue, and nothing else would get done, and when it’s over, Bush wins, because Bush always wins. That’s my congressman’s view, anyway. I know because I asked him.

Is it really too late?  What sort of groundwork would have to be laid? What processes would kick in, how long would they take, and what might be pushed aside? What consequences might be anticipated?

The groundwork has already been laid. The charges against the executive have been fleshed out in meetings and conferences across the country. They have been presented to political committees, town meetings, and state and local governing bodies, and they have been summed up in articles of impeachment now pending against Richard Cheney.

To proceed on the articles now pending in the House, the Judiciary Committee would have to convene a hearing of some kind. In Connecticut, when we impeached our governor a few years back, we had evidence on the record before the corresponding state legislative committee. The House committee can dispense with that step because it has an ample public record, including sworn testimony in court and before Congress. For the top ten crimes committed by this executive, there is no need for additional testimony. The evidence is on the record, and it could be presented in narrative form by the committee’s chief counsel, presenting the work of two lawyers working hard for two weeks. In the House, it’s an accusation, remember, and not a trial.

There is little question that the committee would establish criminal liability in connection with the stated rationale for war, the politicization of federal prosecutions, spying on Americans, torturing prisoners, holding prisoners without trial, malfeasance as commander-in-chief, and any of the dozens of other crimes committed openly and brazenly by our chief executive officers. I would expect a unanimous vote, since the evidence is overwhelming.

This could all be accomplished quickly. A few committee staffers would be occupied for a few short weeks putting together an iron-clad indictment, using evidence on the public record. The committee would hear the evidence in the form of a narrative for a day or two and vote. Most likely, on a vote of the committee that the articles against Cheney should be considered by the full House, the articles would be amended to include Bush. If Cheney is impeached, Bush has to be impeached on the same grounds, since there can be no doubt that Bush had full knowledge of Cheney’s activities and sanctioned them.

The full House would schedule a few days of debate, with Judiciary Committee members leading the debate for and against the indictment, and the House would vote on the articles. Each article that received a majority vote of the full House would go to the Senate for trial. Members of the Judiciary Committee would form the prosecution team in the Senate. The Chief Justice presides as judge over a trial in the Senate, and the trial takes as long as it takes to make the case on each article. The president and vice-president would have an opportunity to rebut and defend. The evidence would be presented much as it was in the House, except that it might be reverified by live witnesses. Figure a couple of weeks.

A few congressmen would be occupied full-time for some weeks putting a coherent and compelling presentation together, but the rest of the House could go back to other business, having spent a grand total of three or four days on this. Nothing would have to be pushed aside to make way for impeachment. As for the senators, they could busy themselves with other matters in advance of the trial. They would be acting as a jury, and there’s nothing for them to do until they get the evidence. Not long after the trial starts, it ends, and the Senate votes. Two-thirds to convict. On the line is the rule of law itself, and politics takes a back seat. Would the stock market go down? Maybe. Would foreigners lose faith in the dollar? Maybe they’d get it back.

On conviction, the president and vice-president are removed, but the Senate could suspend their removal until shortly before the expiration of their term to ensure an orderly succession. It’s win-win. In Connecticut, we spent a summer impeaching our governor, and it was worth it. He actually went to jail. He must be seething now–he was removed and prosecuted for taking gifts from state contractors. The guv had to do time for something a thousand times less serious than what these thugs have done, and they’re walking around free.

What are the consequences of doing nothing and allowing Bush and Cheney to serve out their term? A strong precedent would be established to exempt the president from all law. The next president will almost certainly claim a privilege to imprison people without trial if this president is allowed to get away with doing just that. By compelling logic, a future president who wished to extend the privilege to shooting people down in the street could cite the license accorded by the House to the Bush administration in our time, exempting the president from the criminal laws.

Your congressman would be happy if he or she were not the sole prosecuting authority in the case of crimes committed by the president. It’s true that a federal prosecutor could bring criminal charges against the president and vice president, but the president happens to be in charge of all the prosecutors, and prosecutors don’t often prosecute their bosses. There could be an independent prosecutor, but the president can fire that officer, too, as Nixon proved the last time we removed a president.

And so it’s left to the House to prosecute, and the House won’t do it. My member won’t, and he wants me to think it’s too late, so I’ll stop pestering him. It’s not, and I won’t.