Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Attorneys-Turned-Lawmakers on Front Lines of Impeachment Inquiry

As bombshell testimonies dropped in televised impeachment hearings amid what one Democrat described Thursday as “Gatling gun fire of myth proposition” from Republicans, eight attorneys-turned-lawmakers were in the room where it happened. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — As bombshell testimonies dropped in televised impeachment hearings amid what one Democrat described Thursday as “Gatling gun fire of myth proposition” from Republicans, eight attorneys-turned-lawmakers were in the room where it happened.

As a former federal prosecutor, California Congressman Adam Schiff has chaired the House Intelligence Committee through five marathon days of public hearings with even-kneel questioning as though standing in the well of a courtroom.

Schiff is one of six Democrats with lawyering experience on the committee. His Republican counterpart, Devin Nunes, has routinely condemned the proceedings as a circus, describing Thursday’s hearing as a “carousel of accusations” on a “nefarious thought crime.”

Before landing in Congress, Nunes was a dairy farmer. But he’s backed by fellow Republican John Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor from the Eastern District of Texas.

Nunes had a warning for parents across the country over cable news Wednesday night, closing out the hearing saying “hide the kids...I yield to Mr. Schiff for story time hour.”

Schiff calmly responded: “I thank the gentleman as always for his remarks.”

The audience erupted in laughter. The witnesses, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Ukraine Laura Cooper and top State Department official David Hale, and their attorneys stifled mirth behind pursed smiles.

David Seide, a former inspector general’s office attorney with the State Department, was a federal prosecutor alongside Schiff in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

The attorney said Schiff has not “lost his cool” through the hearings after years of “intellectual combat” in the courtroom.

“You need to be able to throw punches but you need to be able to take them as well,” Seide said in an interview.

Arguably the biggest punch Schiff threw during the hearings was directed at the subject of the inquiry: President Donald Trump.

When Trump hurled insults in real time over Twitter at the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine as she testified, Schiff seized the opportunity, asking the witness to comment on the president’s baseless accusations.

"I actually think that where I've served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better, you know, for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I've served in," Marie Yovanovitch testified.

The attack, Schiff said, was clear "witness intimidation," a criminal offense.

“As part of the experience of being in court a lot you develop a sense of intellectual nimbleness so you can deal in real time,” Seide said, adding that’s exactly what his former colleague demonstrated in bringing the president’s Twitter attack into the hearing.

Three Harvard Law school alumni sit on the House Intelligence Committee, including Schiff, Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi and Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro.

From the Ivy League halls, Castro jumped into private practice in San Antonio. Krishnamoorthi, a freshman congressman, served as a special assistant attorney general in his home state, clamping down on corruption.

Republican Jim Jordan, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, has joined in on the proceedings with fierce questioning that reflects that of a trial attorney. But the Ohio congressman, with a law degree from Capital University in Columbus, never served as an assistant U.S. attorney, like Ratcliffe and Schiff.

During damning testimony Wednesday from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Utah Republican Chris Stewart made known that he sat as a congressman who never tackled torts, contracts or criminal procedure.

The comment came with Stewart claiming the hearings had uncovered no evidence of a quid pro quo, bribery or extortion.

“I'm not an attorney. Extortion sounds pretty scary,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of serious. I had to look it up what it means. It means obtaining money or property by threat to a victim's property or loved ones.”

The congressman slightly missed the mark with his explanation of 18 U.S. Code, Sec. 872, defined by Columbia Law School as “an offense that has as its elements the extraction of anything of value from another person by threatening or placing that person in fear of injury to any person or kidnapping of any person.”

And Sondland testified that he did pursue a quid pro quo with Ukraine, at the “express direction” of the president.

“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Outnumbered six to two in lawyers-turned-politicians, Republicans’ questioning has fallen short in the marathon hearings compared to their colleagues across the aisle. Almost half the Democrats in the room are attorneys.

A “fatal flaw” is how Seide characterized the Republican method of talking point speeches followed by open-ended questions that pull unforeseen answers.

“Good lawyering is about knowing what your witness is going to say and how you get them to say that,” Seide said.

Democrat Eric Swalwell, a former prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, has repeatedly engaged in the mode of questioning Seide laid out.

“State Department employees have told us that they don’t want to make legal definitions around what occurred with the White House meeting being leveraged against the investigations. But you plainly call it a quid pro quo, is that right?” Swalwell asked Wednesday.

Sondland replied bluntly, “I did.”

Ratcliffe is the only Republican to stand behind a lectern as a federal prosecutor before his life as a legislator. But his questions Thursday to a U.S. diplomat to Ukraine confused the witness and garnered minimal cohesive answers to buttress the Republican defense for Trump.

Ratcliffe asked, “How did the conversation end?” referring to a call David Holmes overheard between Ambassador Sondland and President Trump about Ukraine.

“I only heard ambassador Sondland’s side of the conversation, sir, and at the end of the conversation, sir, he was giving the president advice about the A$AP Rocky situation, and he said ‘They should have released him on your word and you can tell the Kardashians you tried,’” Holmes replied, referring to an American rapper’s arrest in Sweden.

When Ratcliff later slipped out of the historic proceedings, the witness alongside Holmes called the congressman’s exit “unfortunate.”

"I think all of us who came here under legal obligation also felt we had a moral obligation to do so. We came as fact witnesses," said Fiona Hill, a former senior National Security Council official.

Categories / Government, Law, National, Politics

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.