Thursday, February 12, 2009

About Impeachment

There have been reports in the Saipan newspapers about a call to impeach the Lieutenant Governor. In today's newspaper, there is a letter claiming that such action would be unconstitutional.

Here's the real deal.

Representative Tina Sablan, as a member of the CNMI Congress, is fully empowered and completely within her CNMI Constitutional duties and rights to call for impeachment of the Lieutenant Governor. The CNMI Legislature is fully empowered to consider and move on impeachment of the Lieutenant Governor.

The pertinent parts of the CNMI Constitution read as follows:

CNMI Constitution, Article III, Section 19: Impeachment. The governor and lieutenant governor are subject to impeachment as provided in article II, section 8, of this Constitution for treason, commission of a felony, corruption or neglect of duty.

CNMI Constitution, Article II, Section 8: Impeachment. The legislature may impeach those executive and judicial officers of the Commonwealth subject to impeachment under this Constitution. The house of representatives may initiate impeachment proceedings by the affirmative vote of two-thirds of its members and the senate may convict after hearing by the affirmative vote of two-thirds of its members.
Source: Original provision, unaltered (ratified 1977, effective 1978).

There is NOTHING in the CNMI Constitution or the U.S. Constitution that protects an elected official from facing impeachment proceedings and criminal charges simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the letter writer, Cristy Sablan of San Antonio, misinforms the public both as to "facts" and conclusions about the law.

The Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested on federal criminal charges for corruption. The Illinois Legislature panel that recommended impeachment did so based on the criminal charges, as well as other allegations of misconduct.

This is not an isolated example, either. In 2004, Oklahoma lawmakers voted on impeachment of the state Insurance Commissioner while he faced two trials on five felony charges.

As explained in this news article by journalist Patrick Butler:

While federal criminal charges are pending, one need not be guilty of a criminal offense to be impeached. Unfitness for office and ignoring the legislature in major decisions may be reason enough.

The CNMI letter-writer confuses the presumption of innocence that is part of our criminal jurisprudence with the power of the Legislature to decide issues of job tenure. Being presumed innocent of criminal charges does not mean that you cannot face impeachment proceedings.

Certainly, if the CNMI Legislature decided to impeach the Lieutenant Governor, he would retain constitutional rights, including his 5th amendment right against self-incrimination and could not be made to testify or produce evidence against himself. But the CNMI Legislature does not need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt proving guilt of the specific felony charges presently pending. They can consider all evidence related to any of the categories upon which impeachment is founded.

The typical procedure used for impeachment: the House would appoint a panel to investigate and recommend--like a House sub-committee--on the impeachment; then the House votes on the recommendation--when they vote "for impeachment" they are really voting for a trial of the charges for impeachment to be held in the Senate; and if the House vote is for impeachment by 2/3rd majority, the matter goes to the Senate for the trial and vote on whether to "convict" on the impeachment--not on the criminal charges.

The effect of impeachment is to oust an elected official from his or her job. There are no jail terms or other criminal effects. There is no "lynch mob" or hanging of the Lieutenant Governor "from the highest tree."

So there is no problem "letting the judicial process run its course" and conducting impeachment proceedings at the same time. Ms. Cristy Sablan is wrong.