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Nikolas Bowie, Assistant Professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in an article for the Harvard Law Review Forum, entitled “High Crimes Without Law,” a dissent to the popular view that impeachable offenses need not be violations of existing law. This argument was first made by Justice Benjamin Curtis, who left his post with the Supreme Court  in the wake of the Dred Scott decision, and subsequently agreed to represent President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment proceedings. Johnson was impeached, in part, for inflammatory speeches given in protest of Congress’ anti-slavery legislation.

Curtis argued that the “high crimes and misdemeanors” warranting impeachment are defined as high crimes committed against the United States, made illegal by laws of the  United States. He supported this argument with three points: “first, a textual argument that the phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” refers to something analogous to treason and bribery; second, a structural argument that impeachment proceedings are criminal trials; and third, a structural argument that Congress could not use impeachment proceedings to subvert the constitutional prohibitions against ex post facto laws and bills of attainder.” Bowie explores these arguments in detail, and then proceeds to respond to modern counter arguments, such as those professed by Professors Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz. The primary difference between Curtis’ interpretation and that of Tribe and Matz’s more expansive definition is in the way they define impeachment, as either a criminal or civil process; Tribe and Matz argue that impeachment is a civil proceeding not requiring the constitutional protections of a criminal proceeding. Interested readers should follow the link above for a more detailed overview of Bowie and Curtis’ argument.

As a note, even if Curtis’ interpretation is correct, and impeachment only applies to crimes enshrined in law, that does not necessarily let President Trump off the hook. The voter fraud for which he has been very nearly implicated by Mueller’s investigation, may well be a criminal violation. Professor Bowman weighed this possibility in his latest post, though he would disagree with Bowie and argues that violations of existing law are not necessary for impeachment. Said post can be found here.

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