Jefferson Deserves Presumption of Innocence

Posted June 6, 2007 at 4:42pm

The 16-count indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) this week has produced a spasm of legislative proposals and speeches calling for his expulsion from the House. Frankly, as a longtime critic of Congressional ethics rules, I never thought I would be arguing against an effort to purge or punish an unethical member. However, expelling Jefferson would violate core constitutional principles and likely trigger an intense legal fight. Even Members of Congress deserve a presumption of innocence and their “jury of peers” must remain fellow citizens, not fellow politicians.

Many of us have remarked on the strength of the evidence against Jefferson, including his famous frozen asset problem of the $90,000 found in his freezer. The 95-page indictment details 11 alleged bribery and fraud conspiracies that stretch across Africa.

Yet the merits of the Jefferson indictment are irrelevant to this debate. Expelling a Member before a conviction puts politicians in the role of a jury — meting out punishment in a politically charged environment. With the exception of the carefully structured impeachment proceedings, the framers did not foresee such a role for Members. It would be a dangerous precedent if a majority could declare a colleague presumptively guilty and toss him or her from Congress.

Expulsion before trial also is grossly unfair for a Member who is forced to defend his name in simultaneous proceedings before the courts and Congress. Putting aside the heavy financial burden, Congressional hearings could compromise privileged information or force a Member to waive constitutional rights to make a compelling case against expulsion.

Congress has long recognized those dangers and waited for the judicial system to reach its own conclusions. For that reason, the House waited until 2002 to expel then-Rep. James Traficant (Ohio), who was convicted on corruption charges. The only prior expulsions concerned two Members who were expelled at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 as traitors.

Ironically, some of the loudest calls are now coming from Republicans who fought efforts of expulsion or punishment in the previous Congress after the indictments of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Yet, they are not alone. Many embarrassed Democrats supported stripping Jefferson of his powerful committee positions before his indictment and now support an expedited process that could lead to expulsion.

History has shown that public assumptions of guilt often fall short in an actual court of law. Various Members have been unsuccessfully investigated or even prosecuted. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) was acquitted of charges of corruption as a federal judge. While some denounced that verdict, Hastings has now served in the House for 15 years and is viewed by many as someone who has served with distinction.

The Hastings case is a useful point of comparison. Congress waited to impeach Hastings until after his trial. It did impeach despite his acquittal. However, there is a great difference between removing a judge and removing a Representative. Under Article III, federal judges “hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” While the Hastings impeachment was controversial because of his acquittal, it generally was accepted that Congress could impeach him under this authority.

Conversely, it would have been shocking for Congress to try to bar Hastings from service in the legislative branch based on the same evidence.

To expel a Member is to negate the votes of citizens who have a right to select their own representative, regardless of the views of other politicians. In Jefferson’s case, his constituents returned him to office after the details of the investigation were made public. Despite national calls for his ouster, he won 57 percent of the vote in his re-election in November.

The framers were adamant in restricting the authority of Congress to engage in selective pruning of its ranks. During the Constitutional Convention, the framers made reference to a contemporary controversy over the expulsion of John Wilkes from Parliament. Wilkes had publicly attacked the peace treaty with France and, in doing so, earned the ire of Crown and Parliament. After he was convicted and jailed for sedition, Parliament moved to declare him ineligible for service in the legislature. He served anyway, and eventually Parliament rescinded the legislative effort to disqualify him.

The framers feared that, unless Congress was prevented from manipulating its membership, history would repeat itself. Citing the Wilkes case as “worthy of our attention,” James Madison warned that if Congress could engage in such manipulation it would “subvert the Constitution.”

Likewise, Alexander Hamilton noted that “[t]he qualifications of the persons who may choose or be chosen … are defined and fixed in the Constitution, and are unalterable by the legislature.”

This history has helped courts understand the meaning of the Qualifications Clause of Article I, Section 2, which references state laws as setting qualifications for Members. Despite this language and the authority of Congress to punish its own Members, the Supreme Court has stressed that neither the states nor Congress can manipulate qualifications to exclude politicians. As the court noted in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, the framers feared that, if the membership of Congress could be manipulated, Congress could become “a self perpetuating body to the detriment of the new Republic.”

At least Wilkes had the benefit of a trial and had served time for his alleged crime. Expelling a Member before conviction would allow such manipulation by majority vote based on popular sentiment or political convenience — an obvious danger when our Congress is divided so closely between the parties. These dangers are magnified in a Congress that is now claiming the unprecedented right to create new voting Members. The House recently passed legislation that would, for the first time in history, create a new type of voting Member in the House — giving the District of Columbia a voting representative despite the fact that it is not a state. With the expulsion effort, Congress would not only be asserting the right to create new voting Members for federal enclaves but also the right to expel other Members suspected of crimes.

Politics ultimately may trump principle on this question. In a Congress under intense public criticism for its failure to pass meaningful ethics reforms, Jefferson has become a useful object lesson for Members to demonstrate their commitment to good government. Suddenly, the House looks like a Claude Rains convention with 435 Members practicing their “shocked, shocked” sound bites.

Jefferson recently resigned his only remaining committee position on the Small Business panel. He has been marginalized and vilified — for good reason. However, the House would do far greater damage to its institution if it yields to the temptation to pronounce guilt before a colleague has had his day in court.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University.