California state court judges – even at appellate levels – must periodically stand for reelection by the voters.
Federal judges never face the voters. Judges of the U.S. District Courts, courts of appeals, and Supreme Court are appointed for life.
There are three ways a lifetime federal appointment can be shortened: Death, resignation or impeachment.
Of these, the rarest is impeachment: In the history of the republic, seven federal judges have been removed from office. (One of these, Alcee Hastings, was impeached in 1989 for alleged corruption and perjury, but then was elected to Congress in 1993 and has been reelected eight times. Cynical readers might argue that, when Hastings was booted off the federal bench and elected to Congress, the average ethical standards of both bodies improved.)
One of these infrequent impeachment proceedings is going on now, and raises interesting issues.
U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous of Louisiana is charged with requesting and accepting numerous gifts while handling cases involving his benefactors; filing for bankruptcy under a false name; participating in a kickback scheme; and concealing debts and gambling losses.
The impeachment process begins when the House of Representatives votes on “articles of impeachment” which, if passed, result in an impeachment trial in the Senate.
The charges against Porteous were set out in four separate articles of impeachment, and the House voted unanimously to charge the judge on all four.
As a result, a Senate Impeachment Committee conducted a week-long trial in September, and is expected to make its recommendation on impeachment to the full Senate in November. The full Senate then will decide Porteous’ fate.
Porteous has admitted many of the charges against him, and some lawmakers from both parties see the case against him as open-and-shut. But it’s not that simple.
First, the U.S. Constitution states that a judge can be removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Porteous is accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors.
But the United States hasn’t seen enough impeachments to develop an accepted definition of the phrase, and historians say it was an antiquated and arcane expression even when the Founding Fathers adopted it more than 200 years ago.
In addition, Porteous committed many of the acts in question while he was a Louisiana state court judge, and some observers believe he should not be thrown off the federal bench for things he may have done before he was a federal judge.
On the other hand, his detractors point out that, if the White House had known about Porteous’s misdeeds when he was being considered for federal appointment, President Bill Clinton would not have named him to the bench. (Clinton, of course, knows something about high crimes and misdemeanors, having gone through his own impeachment trial not long after appointing Porteous.)
It is clear the Porteous case will not be decided before Election Day; so at least this year, Porteous will not have the opportunity to follow in Judge Hastings’ footsteps and run for Congress.
Nevada County resident Peter C. Bronson is president of the Nevada County Bar Association and practices law in the area of creditors’ rights, insolvency and business litigation. Contact him at email@example.com.
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