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By Frank Bowman

Regular readers will recall that former Missouri Chief Justice Michael Wolff and I have disagreed about whether Governor Eric Greitens can be impeached for conduct that occurred before he took office.  Judge Wolff said no.  I said yes.

One of Judge Wolff’s arguments was that there had been no impeachments of federal officers for conduct prior to assumption of office.  I responded, in part, that federal practice is irrelevant to Missouri constitutional rules because the standards for impeachment are markedly different in the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.  But I concurred with Judge Wolff’s assertion that no federal official had been impeached for pre-office conduct.

Both of us were wrong.  In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Congressman Adam Schiff recalls his experience as a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 2010 when it voted to recommend impeachment of  U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous.  He notes that one of the articles of impeachment approved by the House and later the Senate alleged corrupt behavior while Porteous was a state judge and before he took the federal bench.

As Congressman Schiff observed, “In voting overwhelmingly to convict Judge Porteous on every count, the Senate established the precedent that a federal official can be removed for conduct committed before assuming office.”

Precedent in federal impeachment is a peculiar animal.  The process lies entirely within the province of Congress, and is generally agreed not to be reviewable by the courts. Therefore, the legal principle of stare decisis — meaning that earlier decisions of appellate courts have some binding effect on judges in later cases — doesn’t apply to federal impeachments.  Each new congress can interpret the impeachment language of the constitution however it chooses, regardless of what previous congresses may have done.  That said, congressmen have tended to look at prior impeachment decisions as guides to appropriate constitutional interpretation.  Therefore, it seems quite likely that the Porteous case will be seen as establishing a meaningful precedent.

This may be of some modest consequence in the case of Governor Greitens.  The standard for impeachment under the Missouri constitution is entirely different than the federal constitution’s famous “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  And therefore federal practice is of little or no real importance.  Still, Governor Greitens defenders will surely try to use precedent from any source if they think it helps their man.  The impeachment of Judge Porteous takes one possible argument off the table.

The Porteous case is of greater potential importance should Mr. Trump ever face a formal impeachment inquiry.  Inasmuch as the Mueller investigation focuses largely on contacts between Mr. Trump and his associates and agents of Russia prior to Trump’s inauguration, the Porteous precedent places any misbehavior in that period squarely within the purview of the congressional impeachment power.