Forget Impeachment, Use the 14th Amendment Instead

February 8, 2021 Topic: Politics Region: Americas

Forget Impeachment, Use the 14th Amendment Instead

The suggestion that the Senate (merely) censure former President Donald Trump for aiding and abetting the January 6 insurrection falls far short of what’s required.

The suggestion that the Senate (merely) censure former President Donald Trump for aiding and abetting the January 6 insurrection falls far short of what’s required.

What’s required is keeping a dangerous and scheming man from having access to high office ever again. Not just sending a righteous message to some antidemocratic autocrat in 2040, but disqualifying Trump in 2024. No, this is about much more than letting future generations know that we took this act of treasonous behavior seriously and said so.

Sadly, with the Senate’s vote to avoid—barely—dismissing the impeachment, we know there won’t be a conviction. But that can’t be the end of the effort to hold Trump accountable and to exact justice for his crimes. Senate censure—however satisfying emotionally and morally—risks being insufficient legally and politically.

The answer lies not in the Impeachment Clause but in Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. That addition to the Constitution was passed and ratified after the Civil War, and Section 3 was deemed essential to rooting out the evils that remained. The pertinent language reads:

No person shall . . . hold any office . . . under the United States, . . . who, having previously taken an oath . . . to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.

Section 5 of that amendment tells us what’s required to give it full force and effect:

The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

This authority to weed out of our political life those unfaithful to the Republic was used a fair amount during Reconstruction to deal with officers and officials of the Confederacy, but then again not until a single case stemming from disloyalty in World War I. Still, it remains “good law” and readily available to those with the determination to use it.

And, if you’re worried, there is no “bill of attainder” problem, either; that constitutional prohibition addresses only criminal matters.

Now, there has been some talk lately about “14 Section 3.” Talk is fine, but not enough. What is needed is the hard decision to use it. A passing reference in a censure resolution isn’t enough to get the job done.

A vote to convict by the majority of the Senate, coupled with the House majority vote to impeach, may together be a sufficient predicate. That is, it would mean a majority of both houses of Congress had found Trump “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” What’s missing is a measure “to enforce, by appropriate legislation.”

Any attempt to disqualify Trump from future office will likely be tested in court. So, we need to proceed conservatively. That is, we need “legislation” that will meet a hard judicial test. A challenge to legislation to disqualify Trump likely would be held to standards that see it as punishment, and penal measures are typically construed narrowly to give the benefit of the doubt to those affected.

So, a simple censure resolution by one house of Congress is not up to the task. It will take a law passed by both Senate and House, and signed by the president, that recites and makes findings that Trump’s crimes meet the requirement of conduct that aided or abetted insurrection. It must explicitly call on the authority given to Congress in Section 5 to disqualify the culprit.

This is normally a high bar, and it should be. But let’s consider the circumstances that will attend the Senate impeachment trial. By all accounts, the vote to convict will garner a bipartisan majority of the Senate—just not the two-thirds of those present required.

And then what? When will Majority Leader Chuck Schumer ever face a more compelling opportunity to do the right thing?

Majorities of both House and Senate will have spoken on the question posed in Section 3. Let those majorities act. A joint resolution of the Congress invoking the authority given it in the 14th Amendment takes only a majority vote in both houses.

Mr. Majority Leader, please take this opportunity to capture the will of the majority in the Senate, pass it, and send it on to the House, where the Speaker of the House would receive it with open arms, and bring it to the floor for a confirming vote there.

Please, spare us any temporizing attempt to relegate the 14th Amendment to ancient history and argue lamely that it doesn’t apply to the present. These times bear too much parallel to the 1860s to get away with that!

To the majority in Congress who have proclaimed their outrage and their determination to see justice done: You have the tool you need. Use it!

David Skaggs is a Democrat and a lawyer and represented Colorado’s Second District in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1999.

Image: Reuters.