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House Judiciary Committee holds first impeachment hearing
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House Judiciary Committee holds first impeachment hearing

Four legal scholars appeared before the US House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to help guide the conversation on the constitutional standard for impeachment.

On Tuesday the Intelligence Committee concluded their investigation and approved a report recommending impeachment. Wednesday’s hearings mark a new phase in the impeachment process as the Judiciary Committee decides whether to draft articles of impeachment, and if so, what to include in the articles.

Three of the legal scholars, Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School; Pamela Karlan of Stanford University; and Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina, agreed that there are grounds for impeachment based on the information available in the Intelligence Committee Report and the Mueller Report. The fourth witness, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School, argued that there is not enough evidence to move forward.

Feldman provided historical context on the impeachment clause. Feldman stated that the founding fathers believed that elections are not enough to hold the president accountable and prevent corruption because a President can corrupt elections to hold on to power. Karlan focused her opening statement on abuse of power and the importance of protecting the integrity of elections. She argued that encouraging a foreign power to undermine our elections “endangers democracy itself.” Gerhardt’s opening statement highlighted the context and gravity of the president’s misconduct and his obstruction of Congress. He emphasized the distinction between a king who is above the law and a president who is not.

Turley, the minority witness, expressed concern about “lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.” He noted the speed of the impeachment and the “incomplete and inadequate record.” Turley warned that impeachment under these conditions would pave the way for future impeachments based on rage and not reason. He drew on a play based on the life of Sir Thomas More when cautioning that we should not cut down the laws of the land to get at the devil.

During the questioning, Turley claimed that there is not enough evidence to support the crimes of bribery and obstruction of justice, citing the federal statute. Feldman was asked to respond to Turley’s claim that the evidence did not satisfy the elements of bribery. Feldman disagreed with Turley and offered a Constitutional definition of bribery, “soliciting something of value … corruptly for personal gain.” Gerhardt was asked his opinion on the claim that there is not enough evidence to support obstruction of justice. Gerhardt argued that obstruction of justice does not just take place in court but can happen in any lawful proceeding. This includes failing to respond to subpoenas that have the force of law.

There were a few notable quips from the Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on the impeachment inquiry. In his opening statement, Turley, when describing our age of “agitated passions,” said: “Even my dog seems mad. And Luna is a Goldendoodle and they don’t get mad.” In another memorable moment, Karlan was asked to distinguish between a king and a president. She responded by saying, “while Trump can name his son Barron he cannot make him a Baron.” Karlan eventually apologized for the comment.

The next hearing has not been set.