How the Warren Court Enabled Police Abuse

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

June 17, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Senate Republicans have an opportunity to reverse one of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s most pernicious legacies—but they seem determined to blow it. Sen. Tim Scott, who is leading the majority’s police-reform effort, said Sunday that abolishing “qualified immunity,” which protects law-enforcement officers from lawsuits under a law known as Section 1983, is “off the table.” Police unions, Mr. Scott said, view it as a “poison pill.”

Section 1983 originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which opened federal courts to lawsuits challenging civil-rights violations by defendants acting “under color” of state and local law. It provides that violators “shall be liable” to their victims. The idea was that freed slaves could go to court to enforce their newly won constitutional rights.

It didn’t work out that way, and much of the blame lies with the Supreme Court, which in the late 19th century defanged the 14th Amendment, relieving states of their obligation to honor all citizens’ federal rights. The court only began to correct that error in the mid-20th century, proceeding on a right-by-right basis under a doctrine known as incorporation.

What the court gave with one hand, it took away with the other. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the justices held that states were obligated to observe the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. But in Pierson v. Ray (1967), they relieved state officials from civil-rights liability unless their actions violated “clearly established law.” That’s “qualified immunity.”

The results can be infuriating. In one recent case, police officers escaped liability for siccing an attack dog on a suspect who was sitting with his hands up. A previous case had found a Fourth Amendment violation, but the court held the precedent didn’t apply because the suspect in the earlier case was lying on the ground. In another case, cops shot a fleeing driver who posed no threat. In another, police stole a collection of rare coins while executing a search warrant. Because such larceny by officers hadn’t arisen in a previous case, the court reasoned, the plaintiff’s right not to have his property stolen by police was not “clearly established.”

To call this a double standard would be an understatement. Civilians are subject to civil and criminal liability when they violate the law, even when their legal obligations aren’t perfectly clear. When state officials violate constitutional rights, qualified immunity often makes it impossible to hold them to account. It’s easy to understand why this disparity inspires cynicism about the rule of law.

Warren’s rationale for qualified immunity was that officials had historically enjoyed immunity for acts taken in “good faith.” He concluded that unless a court had already established that a particular act violated the law, it couldn’t be presumed that Congress intended to impose liability.

But Will Baude of the University of Chicago has demonstrated that there was no general “good-faith defense” for public officials and that qualified immunity can apply even to violations committed in bad faith. Further, Warren’s conclusion about Congress’s intent is at odds with the statute’s language; the words “shall be liable” brook no exception.

The Warren court established qualified immunity at a time when it was rewriting the Constitution by discovering new rights at an astonishing clip. It’s possible the justices worried that imposing liability for violations of the new rights would encourage resistance and stymie the rights revolution.

Yet as the Warren court relieved itself from the strictures of the Constitution, it did the same for state officials. Qualified immunity has made civil-rights litigation such a crapshoot that it does little to deter misconduct, particularly rights violations by police, which can be remedied only after the fact with money damages.

Some conservatives fear that correcting the error of qualified immunity could alter incentives for the worse, by putting police officers at risk of liability for doing their best to protect the public. That concern is misplaced. Other professionals face tort liability irrespective of whether the law on some point was “clearly established” by a prior court decision. No one argues that hinders the practice of law or engineering.

Besides, unlike most other professionals, police are almost always indemnified by their departments. Police departments take advantage of qualified immunity rather than make difficult choices like confronting or firing bad cops, standing up to police unions, or insisting on use-of-force rules that could deter abuses. In these ways, qualified immunity does a disservice to the overwhelming majority of police who take their duties to their communities seriously.

The Roberts court appears disinclined to correct its predecessor’s error, denying review this week in a score of cases asking it to reconsider the doctrine. That means it’s up to Congress. House Democrats are promoting legislation that would eliminate immunity for police officers. The only sound objection is that the Democratic plan stops short of ending the failed experiment of qualified immunity altogether.

Limited to police officers, it would leave the doctrine on the books for other state officials, making the Supreme Court less likely to correct its original error. And it would arbitrarily deny recourse to victims of, say religious discrimination by a mayor or racial discrimination by a licensing officer. All state officials, including the police, should be accountable for respecting constitutional rights.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-warren-court-enabled-police-abuse-11592410930

A Constitutional Guide to Emergency Powers

Federal leadership is crucial, but there are measures only states have the authority to take.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Charles Stimson

March 19, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to extraordinary restraints on liberty, from international travel bans to state and local orders that businesses shut down, individuals avoid large assemblies and even stay home, and infected patients remain in quarantine. Depending on the epidemic’s progress, even more-draconian measures may be needed, such as restrictions on interstate and intrastate travel. It’s possible that “social distancing” will last for months rather than weeks.

All this goes against the grain in America, whose people treasure freedom and constitutional rights. But the government has ample constitutional and legal authority to impose such emergency steps.

Some state officials, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have urged the White House to take charge. But this isn’t a task for Washington alone. While the federal government has limited and enumerated constitutional authority, states possess a plenary “police power” and have primary responsibility for protecting public health.

States may also take more drastic measures, such as requiring citizens to be tested or vaccinated, even against their will. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme Court considered a challenge to a state law requiring everyone to be vaccinated against smallpox. Henning Jacobson refused vaccination and was convicted. The court upheld the law and Jacobson’s conviction.

“The Constitution,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for a 7-2 majority, “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.” Instead, “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic.” Its members “may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

States also have the power, beyond criminal law enforcement, to make quarantine and isolation effective. If presented with widespread noncompliance, governors may call National Guard units to put their orders into force, to safeguard state property and infrastructure, and to maintain the peace. In some states, individuals who violate emergency orders can be detained without charge and held in isolation.

Federal leadership is crucial. Washington has wider access to data about the virus, its migration and trends. It is prudent for states to follow federal guidance on matters like quarantine and travel restrictions. But because Washington lacks states’ police power, compulsion is not always an option. The Constitution forbids federal officials from coercing the states or commandeering state resources or civilian personnel. While Washington may withhold some federal funds from states that refuse to follow federal law, it may do so only in ways that are tailored to advance the federal interests at stake and don’t amount to a “gun to the head,” as Chief Justice John Roberts put it in the 2012 ObamaCare case.

The federal government has the authority to order regional or nationwide containment and quarantine measures. The Public Health Service Act enables the surgeon general, with the approval of the secretary of health and human services, “to make and enforce such regulations as . . . are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases.” President Trump listed the Covid-19 virus for this purpose in January. The act authorizes the federal government to apprehend, detain and conditionally release individuals to prevent the spread of infection, and to detain anyone who enters from a foreign country or who would spread the disease across state borders.

The act can be read to allow for the general quarantine of all people from a particular state or states, including those who are asymptomatic or even have tested negative. But an attempt to do so would certainly result in litigation. Congress should promptly enact a statute that would affirm federal authority to impose a general quarantine if necessary.

To enforce such measures, the president can deploy civilian and military resources. He could federalize the National Guard over the governor’s objection. The Constitution allows Congress to authorize the use of the militia as well as regular armed forces for a variety of purposes, including suppression of insurrections, defense against invasions, and execution of laws.

Congress has placed significant constraints on the domestic use of the U.S. military. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally prohibits the use of U.S. armed forces for “performing domesti law enforcement activities” and features criminal penalties for noncompliance. But lawmakers have enacted important exceptions that allow the use, in certain specified circumstances, of the military to enforce federal laws. One is the Insurrection Act, originally dating to 1807, which allows the president to use the military when dealing with domestic rebellions. Widespread noncompliance with federal quarantines and travel bans promulgated under the Public Health Service Act may qualify as an insurrection.

Containing the Covid-19 epidemic will require citizens, states, private companies and the federal government to work together. One may hope the steps that have been taken so far will suffice. But emphasizing the sound constitutional and legal basis of these measures is important in reassuring the public that government can do what is necessary to secure the general welfare.

Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy Departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Stimson is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-constitutional-guide-to-emergency-powers-11584659429

Shut up, they advised

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Andrew M. Grossman

4 February 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

At a time the First Amendment rights of free speech and association are under assault, it’s disheartening to see the judiciary getting in on the act. At issue are the judge-made rules governing judges themselves. A draft advisory opinion circulated last month by the Committee on Codes of Conduct of the U.S. Judicial Conference recommends new restrictions on the First Amendment rights of federal judges as well as their law clerks and staff attorneys. The opinion is unconstitutional, and a sloppy bit of judging to boot.

The committee, made up of 15 jurists, proposes to bar judges and their staffers from membership in the Federalist Society and the liberal American Constitution Society. The opinion reasons that a judge’s impartiality and independence could reasonably be called into question if he belongs to what the committee deems ideological “advocacy groups.” But the committee provides no clear guidance as to which other groups are forbidden. It says only that judges remain free to join the American Bar Association but must avoid the Federalist Society and the ACS.

Federal judges aren’t stripped of their constitutional rights before donning their robes. Yet the opinion takes no account of the First Amendment at all. If it did, its authors would have been obliged to subject their ruling to “heightened scrutiny”—which means, among other things, that the government may impose limits only to achieve a compelling interest. Safeguarding public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the judiciary qualifies—but that’s not the end of the test.

Inconsistent restrictions, as the Supreme Court has put it, invariably raise “doubts about whether the government is in fact pursuing the interest it invokes, rather than disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” And inconsistency abounds in the draft opinion.

The Committee gives a pass to the ABA even though it advocates positions that line up consistently with those of the Democratic Party through its official resolutions, lobbying, grass-roots advocacy and friend-of-the-court briefs.

The basis for that approval appears to be that the ABA has a “judicial division,” whose members, its bylaws assert, “will not be deemed to endorse” the association’s “positions and policies.” Perhaps the Federalist Society or ACS could overcome the ban by creating a similar judicial division—though the committee doesn’t say. But that would be meaningless for the Federalist Society, which doesn’t lobby or take positions on policy or political candidates. Its purpose is to facilitate open debate, allowing voices and perspectives often shut out of legal academia to be heard. For the society to adopt a special disclaimer for judicial members would be tantamount to confessing falsely that it has been misrepresenting its true purpose.

The committee also asserts that the ABA “is concerned with the improvement of the law in general and advocacy for the legal profession as a whole,” while the Federalist Society and ACS are not. Such favoritism should raise a red flag. Decades of case law condemns viewpoint-based discrimination by the government that favors one group over others.

The Supreme Court stated the rule plainly in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995): “When the government targets not subject matter but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant. Viewpoint discrimination is thus an egregious form of content discrimination. The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.”

The rule’s application here is clear: The committee may not play favorites, approving organizations because it thinks their views foster “improvement.” To avoid viewpoint discrimination while banning the Federalist Society and ACS, the committee would have to paint with a much broader brush, proscribing not only the ABA but also state bar associations (membership in which is often mandatory for those practicing law), affinity bars like the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Hispanic National Bar Association, and perhaps even churches—all of which take positions on issues that come before federal judges.

That would be foolish as well as unconstitutional. The Judicial Code of Conduct recognizes that “a judge should not become isolated from the society in which the judge lives” and that blocking judges from participation in civil society “is neither possible nor wise,” given their “unique position to contribute to the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.” A viewpoint-neutral ban would run afoul of First Amendment tailoring requirements, which demand that a restriction’s scope be the minimum required to fulfill the government’s stated interest. Requiring judges to be monks is a step too far.

The Committee’s speech- and association-censoring approach simply cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment. So why not stick with the status quo, which focuses on impartiality? Its virtues include neutrality, familiarity, and appropriate deference to a federal judiciary that has proven its integrity and good sense through its conduct and the esteem in which it is held.

Federalist Society members have served as federal judges and law clerks for nearly 40 years without a serious suggestion of ethical impropriety. During that period nothing has changed about the organization’s activities or its purpose. What has changed is that it now faces regular attacks from political actors seeking to achieve their own ends by spreading falsehoods about a public-spirited organization. It is dismaying enough to see a committee of federal judges accept those falsehoods. Their willingness to disregard basic constitutional principles in the process is a dereliction.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They are members of the Federalist Society, and Mr. Grossman serves on its Free Speech and Election Law Executive Committee.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/shut-up-they-advised-11580773557

The Senate Knows Enough to Acquit Trump

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

5 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

Give Nancy Pelosi this: She has chutzpah. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded Friday on the Senate floor to the House’s refusal to appoint managers and transmit its articles of impeachment against President Trump to the upper chamber. “For now,” Mr. McConnell said, “we are content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder. For now.”

Mrs. Pelosi’s response: “The GOP Senate must immediately proceed in a manner worthy of the Constitution.” Never mind that the hold-up is at her end.

Yet now that Mr. Trump has been impeached, the Senate is constitutionally obliged to address the matter. Neither Mrs. Pelosi’s intransigence nor Senate rules, dating from 1868, that peg the commencement of an impeachment trial to the House’s appointment of impeachment “managers” justify an indefinite delay.

As Mr. McConnell noted, the Constitution’s Framers emphasized the importance of a speedy trial in cases of impeachment. “The procrastinated determination of the charges,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65, would do “injury to the innocent,” work to “the advantage of the guilty,” and sometimes do “detriment to the state, from the prolonged inaction of men whose firm and faithful execution of their duty might have exposed them to the persecution of an intemperate or designing majority in the House.”

Mrs. Pelosi is holding the impeachment articles hostage, she says, to ensure that the Senate holds what she regards as a “fair” trial. Her central demand is that the Senate permit House managers to call witnesses the House didn’t hear from before impeaching the president. Putting aside the rank hypocrisy of this demand, the Constitution provides that “the Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The House has no say in how the trial is conducted.

Mr. McConnell appears to believe it is to his advantage to let Mrs. Pelosi fumble about “for now.” But the Constitution obliges the Senate to act at some point. If the House does not relent, the Senate has two options. It could take the position that because the House bears the normal prosecutorial burden of production and persuasion, Mrs. Pelosi’s refusal to engage with the Senate requires the summary dismissal of the articles. Alternatively, the Senate could take a page from the judiciary’s handbook and appoint outside counsel as managers to make the House’s case against Mr. Trump.

If managers are appointed by either the House or the Senate, the Senate should not conduct a trial on the facts. Instead it should dismiss the articles as a matter of law. The House has alleged no impeachable offense, and therefore no evidence can convict Mr. Trump.

The first article charges the president with “abuse of power” in his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There are two ways a president can abuse power: by doing something that exceeds his constitutional authority (such as unilaterally imposing a tax) or by failing to carry out a constitutional obligation (refusing to enforce a law). Neither is applicable here.

Mr. Trump had ample constitutional authority to ask Mr. Zelensky to investigate Ukrainian involvement in the alleged Democratic National Committee server hack, the related genesis of the Russia collusion narrative, and Joe and Hunter Biden’s potentially corrupt dealings in Ukraine. The Supreme Court stated in U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936) that the president is the “sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” with exclusive authority to conduct diplomatic relations.

House Democrats don’t dispute this, or claim Mr. Trump’s actions were illegal in themselves. Rather, they allege that he had “corrupt motives” for doing them.

The “corrupt motives” theory is inherently corrosive of democracy. Motives are often mixed, difficult to discern and, like beauty, generally in the eyes of the beholder—which in this case sees through partisan lenses. To Democrats, the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call demonstrate the desire to harm Democrats; to Republicans, a desire to root out corruption.

Any investigation involving governmental malfeasance can damage the president’s political rivals or benefit allies. But the president has a constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” even if his political opponents may be violating them. To bar investigations of the president’s political opponents would effectively hand them a get-out-of-jail-free card and traduce the rule of law. And virtually everything elected officials do serves political ends. If a president’s pursuit of his political interests is impeachable, every president is removable at Congress’s whim.

The House Democrats’ theory will encourage impeachment whenever a President exercises his constitutional authority in a manner offensive to the party controlling the House. The Framers vehemently opposed impeachment for policy disagreements, as legal scholar Michael Gerhardt noted during President Clinton’s impeachment inquiry in 1998. He told the House Judiciary Committee that “one of the most often repeated pronouncements of the framers” was “that impeachment is not designed to address policy differences or opinion.” He referred the committee an “excellent study” by Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, which warned that “impeachable offenses are not simply political acts obnoxious to the government’s ruling faction.”

The second impeachment article charges Mr. Trump with “obstruction of Congress” for asserting executive privilege in response to subpoenas. But impeachment doesn’t abolish the separation of powers The president has ample constitutional basis to resist congressional demands of documentary and testimonial evidence, particularly when it involves his White House advisers and sensitive national-security issues. This article is not only legally baseless but outrageous, since the House didn’t bother asking a judge to compel White House aides to testify. Instead, Mrs. Pelosi insists Mr. McConnell make it happen.

The Senate must stop the madness. If the House chooses not to pursue its case, the Senate has the authority and the duty to move forward and acquit the president without hearing additional evidence. Both with respect to the timing of the impeachment trial and the actual trial procedures, the Senate must fulfill its constitutional duty as the ultimate check on the House majority’s partisan passions and abuse of its impeachment power.

Mr. Rivkin and Ms. Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations. She is a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-senate-knows-enough-to-acquit-trump-11578262402

Barr’s Loyalty Is to the Constitution, Not a Party

By David B. Rivkin and Andrew M. Grossman

December 24, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Washington’s knives are out for Attorney General William Barr, and the stabbing has intensified since he delivered a November address at the Federalist Society. Predecessor Eric Holder —who while serving in the Obama administration described himself as “the president’s wingman”—accused Mr. Barr of championing “essentially unbridled executive power.” In the same Washington Post op-ed, Mr. Holder added that Mr. Barr’s “nakedly partisan” remarks rendered him a pawn of President Trump and “unfit to lead the Justice Department”—an utterly unhinged claim.

In the New York Times, William Webster, who directed both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, chastised Mr. Barr for criticizing FBI bias. Meanwhile, the Never Trump group Checks and Balances accused Mr. Barr of advancing an “autocratic vision of executive power” that is “unchecked” by Congress and the courts.

Some of the attacks are mere symptoms of Trump derangement syndrome, but others reflect by a deep-seated resistance to the Constitution’s separation of powers and the threat that its enforcement poses to the unaccountable administrative state. In either case, they’re wrong. Far from calling for executive supremacy, Mr. Barr has vigorously advocated the Framers’ vision of the Constitution’s separation-of-powers architecture, featuring the three governmental branches—Congress, the president and the judiciary—each exercising its distinctive authorities while checking the others. In his Federalist Society address, Mr. Barr, quoting Justice Antonin Scalia, explained that the Constitution gives the president and Congress “many ‘clubs with which to beat’ each other.”

Mr. Barr’s extolling of the “unitary executive” is hardly revolutionary—nor, as critics imagine, is it a call for dictatorship. It posits only that the president, being responsible for execution of the law, must be able to control his subordinates. This was the rule across the government until Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S. (1935), in which the Supreme Court carved out an exception for members of certain “independent” regulatory agencies, whom the president can fire only for “good cause.”

The Framers had good reason to favor a strong presidency. The early republic’s weak civilian executive leadership almost lost the Revolutionary War, shifting nearly the entire burden to Gen. George Washington. Postwar government under the Articles of Confederation was a ruinous shambles, unable to assert any sort of national leadership. To be sure, the Framers also feared legislative overreaching. They resolved all these problems by creating a coequal executive who could act, in Mr. Barr’s words, with “energy, consistency and decisiveness.”

Humphrey’s Executor was only the beginning of the attack on the constitutional design. Congress whittled away at executive power, depriving the president of the authority and duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The courts not only approved those usurpations, but themselves meddled in disputes between the political branches and seized broad swaths of executive discretion.

Numerous lawmakers, most of the media and much of the political class now claim—at least during a Republican administration—that even core executive-branch activities, such as diplomacy and law enforcement, must be substantially free from presidential control. Hence the steady drumbeat of criticism directed at Mr. Trump for overseeing and making policy for the Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community as a whole.

The result isn’t a strong Congress but the supplantation of the Constitution’s checks and balances with a worst-of-all-worlds muddle. Leaders of independent agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exercise executive power free from accountability to the president or voters and subject only to the partisan whims of Congress. The bureaucratic “resistance,” spurred on by its allies in Congress, openly defies presidential decisions, undermining the principle of democratic control even in core areas of presidential responsibility like foreign policy. For their part, the courts increasingly police ordinary separation-of-powers disputes between Congress and the executive, destroying the possibility of compromise through political means.

These deviations from the Framers’ blueprint explain much of the government’s current dysfunction. Congress avoids politically dangerous decisions by palming tough choices off on agencies and the courts. The legal and political limbo of the so-called Dreamers is a ready example. Ceaseless congressional investigations nearly incapacitate the White House and are designed to achieve precisely that result. Executive agencies find their every action—even those involving inherently discretionary matters—subject to judicial scrutiny and nationwide injunctions imposed by judges whose jurisdiction is supposed to be limited to a state or district. Whereas the separation of powers fostered practical compromise, today’s judicial supremacy reduces everything to winner-take-all litigation.

Mr. Barr warned in his address that we must “take special care not to allow the passions of the moment to cause us to permanently disfigure the genius of our Constitutional structure.” Too often, previous attorneys general regarded the elements of separation of powers opportunistically, as cudgels to be employed in particular disputes. Mr. Barr’s vision and goals are broader. He’s concerned not only with the conflicts of the day but the structure necessary for the federal government to work. It’s a bold vision, but it’s the opposite of a partisan one.

If Mr. Barr achieves even a fraction of his agenda to restore the Framers’ vision of a strong, independent executive, he will go down as Mr. Trump’s most consequential executive appointment.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/barrs-loyalty-is-to-the-constitution-not-a-party-11577229447

This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »