In Defense of the Constitution’s Judicial Impeachment Standard

This Note explores the traditional interpretation of the Constitution’s impeachment provisions in light of the demands of Judges Claiborne’s, Nixon’s, and Hastings’ cases. Part I describes the signals indicating analytical shortcomings, and thus the need for reexamination of the provisions as currently construed. It shows that the troubling results of the recent standard allowing criminal prosecution before impeachment are apparent to both the courts and the Congress. Part II analyzes the meaning and purpose of the constitutional language, and the recent policy challenges to it. This part shows that, in fact, the impeachment provisions were carefully chosen by the Constitution’s drafters, who recognized the conflict between preservation of an independent judiciary and the need to expeditiously remove miscreants. The impeachment provisions were designed to be cumbersome, in order to protect judicial decisionmaking autonomy. To the Framers, mandating an intricate process for the removal of federal judges seemed a small price to pay to ensure the American populace an independent judiciary.

Part III juxtaposes the recent treatment of judges against Part H’s constitutional analysis. It reveals that the current prosecution-before impeachment practice disregards goals of the judicial independence that spawned the constitutional impeachment provisions. This Note shows that, even in the context of today’s large complex judiciary, the values protected by the impeachment standard are too important to be sacrificed as they are when the standard is neglected. That is to say, moves to amend the Constitution or alternatively the Senate impeachment procedures are overbroad. In the haste to bring an occasional bad judge to trial more efficiently, reformers have forgotten to ask whether the incremental benefits of effectively dismantling the impeachment protections are worth the damage caused to the entire judicial system.