The Senate as Impartial Jurors
“I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of Donald John Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”
When the impeachment trial of President Trump begins in January, it will be only the third time in our history that an impeached president has faced trial. The Senate tried and acquitted both Andrew Johnson and William Clinton. Richard Nixon resigned before the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. If the Senate convicts President Trump, it will be the first removal from office of a sitting president since our Constitution’s ratification in 1788. Given the historical gravity of such a decision, one would want our elected officials, both in the House and in the Senate, to make their decision not on partisan politics but on an impartial evaluation of the facts.
We all know that did not happen in the House and is not going to happen in the Senate. President Trump will be acquitted by a vote along party lines and face reelection in November. Even if some party members vote against their leadership, those who wish to oust the president will never get the 67 votes they need. This piece of your history will pass quickly for this president but sets a frightening precedent for all future presidents facing a Congress controlled by an opposing party. Impeachment will become a political tool rather than the somber remedy the Constitution provides for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have debated all of this ad nauseam. Those observations are not new. There is one point, however, that has received far less attention than it deserves.
If charged with a crime, you are entitled to a trial by an impartial jury of your peers. That is a right in our Constitution. If a juror is prejudice or partial, he or she cannot sit on a jury. It is a fundamental right we all enjoy, ensuring a fair trial.
In an impeachment trial of a sitting president, the Chief Justice of the United States sits as the judge. The House of Representatives appoints a team to act in the role of prosecutor and present their case. The President, as the defendant, is entitled to have his team at the trial defend his rights. The Senate – all 100 members – sit as the jurors and vow to undertake their duties as jurors pursuant to a solemn oath to, “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”
In the Federalist Papers, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton understood the meaning of the impeachment power in the House and trial in the Senate. In addressing the role of the House of Representatives, Hamilton wrote:
The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
That is precisely what we witnessed in the House.
Hamilton had some thoughts on the Senate’s role as well. He wrote:
Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel confidence enough in its own situation, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an individual accused, and the representatives of the People, his accusers?
A Senator must approach the trial without a predetermined vote to convict or acquit. If they are unable to be impartial until presentation of all the evidence, they are not qualified to sit as a juror.
You would think members of the Senate, many of whom are lawyers, would understand that obligation and abide by their duty. Think again.
Senators on both sides of the aisle have been unable to remain silent and instead have turned the circus we witnessed in the House into an equally repulsive display of partisan politics in the Senate. We are used to it in almost everything they do today from immigration, to budgeting, to infrastructure, to medical care and more. With few exceptions, it seems the Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on anything regardless of the relative merits either side presents. That is politics as usual and it has been that way since partisan debate began. No surprise.
This is different. Each Senator will take a special oath — an oath that many cannot now honestly give. Far too many, yearning for a camera, are guilty of political pandering. They are not impartial. They have made their decision before the trial begins. Under traditional rules, they cannot sit on the jury.
Sadly, such hypocrisy will not stop any of them. They will all sit as jurors and make the most profound decision a U.S. Senator can make in flagrant violation of the oath they gave.
Regardless of how you feel about the president, the behavior of many Senators is shameful and adds to the reasons so many Americans rightly question the integrity of our elected officials.