The Senate’s Cadaver Synod: The Trial Of Citizen Trump Would Raise Serious Constitutional Questions
By Jonathan Turley
January 17, 2021 "Information Clearing House" - Below is my column in USA Today on the upcoming Senate trial of President Donald Trump. The Hill recently my second column on why the best defense of Trump could be no defense — to skip the Senate trial and force a threshold vote on the constitutionality of the trial of an ex-president.
Here is my column:
With the second impeachment of President Donald Trump, the Congress is set for one of the most bizarre moments in constitutional history: the removal of someone who has already left office. The retroactive removal would be a testament to the timeliness of rage. While it is not without precedent, it is without logic.
The planned impeachment trial of Donald Trump after he leaves office would be our own version of the Cadaver Synod. In 897, Pope Stephen VI and his supporters continued to seethe over the action of Pope Formosus, who not only died in 896 but was followed by another pope, Boniface VI. After the brief rule of Boniface VI, Pope Stephen set about to even some scores. He pulled Formosus out of his tomb, propped him up in court, and convicted him of variety of violations of canon law. Formosus was then taken out, three fingers cut off, and eventually thrown in the Tiber River.
While some may be looking longingly at the Potomac for their own Cadaver Synod, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have stated that their primary interest is in the possible disqualification of Trump from holding future federal office. Disqualification however is an optional penalty that follows a conviction and removal. It may be added to the primary purpose of removal referenced in the Constitution. The Trump trial would convert this supplemental punishment into the primary purpose of the trial.
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This did happen before but that precedent is only slightly better than the Cadaver Synod. That case involved William Belknap who served as Secretary of War to President Ulysses S. Grant. Belknap resigned after allegations of corruption — just shortly before a House vote of impeachment. The Senate held a trial but acquitted him. Twenty nine of 66 voting senators disagreed in a threshold motion that Belknap was “amenable to trial by impeachment . . . notwithstanding his resignation.”
In fairness to the Democrats, I have long rejected the argument that there comes a point when it is too late to impeach a president while he is in office. As I said in both the Clinton and Trump impeachment hearings, the House is under a duty to impeach if it believes that a president has committed a high crime and misdemeanor. If that occurred on the last day of a term, it would still be warranted.
My objection to this second impeachment was that it proceeded without any deliberation of the traditional impeachment process. It was a snap impeachment, which is to the Constitution what Snapchat is to conversations. It reduces the process to a raw, brief and partisan vote. This could have been avoided. A hearing could have been held in a day to allow the language of the article to be amended and the implications of the impeachment considered. It would also have allowed for a formal demand for a response from the president.
Instead, the impeachment was pushed through on a partisan muscle vote with only ten Republicans supporting the single article. It was an ironic moment. In the last Trump impeachment, I chastised the Democrats for pushing through an impeachment on the slimmest record and the shortest time frame of any presidential impeachment. They insisted that there was no time for witnesses before the House Judiciary hearing, but later waited weeks to submit the articles to the Senate. Now they have outdone that record with an impeachment with no traditional record in a matter of a couple of days. The Senate will not sit until January 19th and any trial would likely occur after January 20th.
I have long wrestled with the notion of a retroactive impeachment trial. I can see the value of establishing that a president was not just accused but convicted of unconstitutional acts. There is also the value of disqualification of such an individual from future office. However, what was an intriguing academic puzzle is now a pressing constitutional concern.
The impeachment trial of a private citizen raises a host of constitutional and practical problems. For example, a president can rely on publicly-funded lawyers like the White House Counsel and can assert presidential privileges. After leaving office, an ex-president would not only pay for his own defense, but he will lose the ability to make privilege determinations. Indeed, many such assertions would be subject to the review of his successor, Joe Biden. It would be like Pope Stephen making determinations on critical evidence of Pope Formosus after pulling him out of the crypt.
The main issue however would be whether this is really an impeachment trial, as opposed to some curious constitutional post-mortem on a passed presidency. That question could face Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts if he has summoned for this role. A chief justice does not simply show up at anything deemed an impeachment trial. He must make an independent judgment over his carrying out a constitutional function. Even if he rules that this is a valid trial, that ruling could be rejected by the Senate in a motion to dismiss the article. In the Clinton impeachment, Democrats demanded such a threshold vote before a trial. Of course, since there is no president to try for impeachment, the Senate may not even ask Roberts to preside — a telling departure that only undermines the trial as a whole.
This impeachment should end with the Trump administration. I do not fault those who view the president’s conduct as impeachable. The speech was reckless and wrong. My primary objection was to the use of a snap impeachment and the language of the article of impeachment. That is now part of Trump’s presidential legacy. The question is now what will be the troubling constitutional legacy left by the Senate in the trial of an ex-president.
In my view, a retroactive removal vote would combine with the use of a snap impeachment to fundamentally altering the role of impeachment in the United States. It would take a rush to judgment and turn it into a parade of constitutional horribles. Any party could retroactively impeach or remove a former president for the purpose of disqualifying him from office. Thus, if a party feared a one-term president’s possible run, they could hold use impeachment to eliminate the political threat. With the snap impeachment, it would be worse than creating a type of “no confidence vote” under our Constitution. After a non confidence vote in the United Kingdom, a former prime minister can still run again for office.
A conviction would also not bring the closure as many may hope. Such disqualification would be one of the few impeachment issues that could be challenged in court. Trump would have standing to sue for his right to run again and he could well win. He would then be more popular than ever with many citizens eager to defy the Washington establishment. There is another path. The Senate could end the trial with a threshold vote and let history and the voters be the final judge of Donald J. Trump.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley