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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
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Impeachment: `First Time for Everything’

WASHINGTON (CN) - Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday over whether a Louisiana federal judge accused of not disclosing kickbacks from lawyers while he was a state judge could be impeached from his federal position. All experts said the impeachment is legally possible and seemed to urge it, even though such an impeachment has never been done. "There's a first time for everything," University of North Carolina Professor Michael Gerhardt said.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing probed the legal questions of impeaching a federal official for actions prior to being appointed as a federal officer. Gerhardt said that just because such an impeachment hasn't been done before does not mean it is wrong. "There are not very many impeachment precedents," he said.

While Judge Thomas G. Porteous was still sitting as a state judge in the 24th Judicial District Court of Louisiana, he allegedly failed to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts from lawyers arguing before him,

When he was nominated in 1994 by President Bill Clinton as a federal judge of the Eastern District Court of Louisiana, senators had asked Porteous whether there was anything about him that would embarrass the president. Porteous had replied that there wasn't. "There's no secret about what that question's seeking" Gerhardt said, suggesting that Porteous intentionally lied.

Yale Law Professor Akhil Amar, who seemed the most vocal proponent for impeachment, even suggested that apart from potentially revoking Porteous' pension and position, the government might also be able to retract the salary he earned as a federal judge as well, seeing as his appointment was built on false pretenses from the beginning and that he never deserved to be a federal judge, he said.

"Have you no sense of shame?" Amar from Yale said of Porteous, referring to the judge's using of a false pretense to get his position, then trying to hang onto it while still receiving taxpayer money.

Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asked why the Department of Justice has not undertaken a criminal investigation.

The experts replied that many of the charges leveled against the judge are not necessarily criminal. As an example, Amar mentioned South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who made headlines when he left unannounced to visit his mistress in Argentina. Amar said that leaving to Argentina is not illegal, but Sanford could be impeached for neglecting his job.

Amar said this difference is because a federal officer undergoing impeachment does not lose property or go to prison, but simply loses his job. "All that's being done, Amar said, "is removing a person who should never have had this position in the first place"

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte asked whether this meant that an impeachable offense is "whatever Congress decides."

Texas Democratic Rep. Charles Gonzalez followed up. "Could you have something that is politically motivated?" he asked, seeming concerned that the loose rules could be abused.

Gerhardt replied that lawmakers intended the rules to be loose so they could be adapted to different circumstances. "They didn't want it to be tied down," he said.

And Amar said that keeping the impeachment process bi-partisan should help to keep away political abuse.

Porteous also faces accusations of making false statements when filing for bankruptcy and of racking up thousands of dollars of casino debt without permission during his 2002 bankruptcy proceedings.

Maurer Law School Professor Charles Geyh was the third witness for the hearing.

In order for Porteous to be successfully impeached, the Senate would need to convict Porteous after the House votes to impeach him.

Porteous' council Richard Westling, who had a few minutes to ask questions, mentioned that the senators had approved of Porteous.

But Amar was consistent in his expressed stance against Porteous. "I balk at someone trying to blame the senate for this sort of thing," he said.

Porteous had declined an invitation to attend the hearing, and was not present.

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