Senate is playing the dangerous game with the 14th Amendment
After a vote suggesting that about half of the Senate has constitutional or prudential concerns over the trial of former President Trump, members are discussing censure as an alternative. I previously supported a censure resolution, but this is censure with a twist. Senator Tim Kaine would add yet another controversy to an array of constitutional issues by electorally barring Trump under the 14th Amendment. With the snap impeachment and a retroactive Senate trial, the country needs another constitutional controversy like Wall Street needs another Reddit stock tip.
Censure is not mentioned in the Constitution because it is a resolution with the view of Congress. Such a statement could allow for bipartisan condemnation. It is also now seen as a type of shadow impeachment. A Senate trial could work to the advantage of Trump if it ends in acquittal. For the first time ever, the House used a snap impeachment and sent the Senate no record to support its article. As before, the Senate can refuse to call witnesses and vote on the record or lack thereof, meaning a brief trial and about half of the Senate rejecting the case. It has led some members back to censure as the effective substitute for conviction.
Part of the controversy of this snap impeachment is using a trial solely for electoral disbarment. The Constitution refers to the trial as to decide on whether to remove “the president” and so that leads some of us to doubt any retroactive trial, while disbarment is an optional punishment for after removal. The Constitution limits the power of the Senate in impeachment trials to “removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”
Retroactive trials remain a close issue even for most scholars who have reached conclusions on either side. Now Kaine and others suggest the Senate can avoid the need for the trial but achieve the same result by a majority vote on censure. At issue is the 14th Amendment section that bars people from holding office if they “have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” or “given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
According to Kaine, his censure resolution would make two findings “that it was an insurrection and that President Trump gave aid and comfort to the insurrectionists.” While this would be a workaround of an unattainable impeachment conviction, it would be defended as part of the authority of Congress over any citizen under the 14th Amendment.
This has never been used to disqualify a former president, and it is not clear Congress has carte blanche authority to bar a citizen from office by majority vote. The Constitution refers to individuals determined to have engaged in treasonous acts. Under this theory, it would be relatively easy to disqualify someone from office and declare him a traitor, but difficult to lift their electoral disbarment. Further, it would also flip the burden of the supermajority vote from a protection for the accused in impeachment trials into a barrier for those disenfranchised by Congress.
Kaine is open about his motivation for “an alternative that would impose, in my view, a similar consequence” without a trial and supermajority vote. But that is why this tactic is so dangerous. The party in control could bar dozens of its opponents from running for federal office. Some Democrats are now demanding such action against Republicans who challenged the election of Joe Biden. This is common in authoritarian countries such as Iran, where leaders often bar their opponents from office.
Kaine could be making a case for Trump in claiming the 14th Amendment as an alternative to conviction at trial. Academics have echoed this view, and some insist Congress clearly has authority to bar Trump from office. Columbia University professor Eric Foner says the 14th Amendment “is very applicable” and “would only require a majority vote in Congress.” Such statements leave little doubt that the motivation is to achieve the penalty of impeachment without the burden of a conviction.
It would be a first impression for a court, but Trump would have a credible case. If he were to prevail, he could cite the decision as vindication and perhaps enhance his claims of being an establishment target. When the 14th Amendment was ratified, it was easy to see its applicability to those who swore allegiance to the confederacy or fought for it. A court today would face the issue of whether Congress has total discretion to make such a finding or if, as I believe, it is subject to judicial review.
The Framers, with their ban on bills of attainder, had opposed individual punishment meted out by Congress. Such bills were used in Great Britain to punish individuals through Parliament rather than the courts. Years ago I had litigated one of the few successful bills of attainder cases in striking down the Elizabeth Morgan Act, which punished my client with stripping him of parental rights. This proposed censure resolution would achieve the same purpose to mete out punishment by popular vote.
Using the 14th Amendment is too clever by half. Our raging politics blinds many to what could be a dangerous precedent of barring opponents from office. When many people call for blacklists and retaliation against anyone “complicit” with Trump in the last four years, such a power would be ripe for abuse. There is an alternative, which is a censure resolution that can garner overwhelming support as a bipartisan condemnation rather than a circumvention of impeachment. We can then leave the Constitution alone, and leave the future of Trump to voters and to history.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law with George Washington University and served as the last lead counsel during a Senate impeachment trial. He testified as an expert for the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Follow him with Twitter @JonathanTurley.