Congress

Even after the Senate trial begins, the House could still add more impeachment articles

The 1936 impeachment of a Florida federal judge outlines the process for adding new charges

House Judiciary Chairman Hatton W. Sumners, left, confers with Speaker William Bankhead. Sumners sought to amend articles of impeachment in 1936 against Judge Halsted L. Ritter, establishing a precedent. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

House Democrats are preparing to send two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate, but they still could add more — even after the Senate trial begins.

If the House managers appointed next week found evidence to support additional articles of impeachment against the president, whether from potential witness testimony on the Senate floor or through other means, they could march back across the Capitol and seek an amended impeachment article resolution on the House floor.

While there is no reason to suspect House Democrats would add new charges, a precedent referenced in Jefferson’s Manual from the 1936 judicial impeachment of Halsted L. Ritter, who had been a federal judge based in Palm Beach County, Florida, appears to give them that power.

On March 2, 1936, the House adopted four articles of impeachment against Ritter, including on allegations that he had continued the practice of law after joining the federal bench. The House worked through procedural steps to prepare for the impeachment trial for the rest of the week, and the Senate received the House impeachment managers the following Tuesday.

But, as outlined in the Congressional Record, that was not the end of the House’s work.

Having discovered additional evidence, including more clarity about the scope of Ritter’s continued private legal work (as well as evidence of income tax evasion), the House managers sought to update the charges against the Florida judge.

House Judiciary Chairman Hatton W. Sumners, D-Texas, brought a new privileged impeachment resolution to the House floor on March 30. The resolution proposed amending some of the original articles. It also proposed three new articles (one regarding his legal practice and two about the tax issues).

Sumners said during the floor debate that the proposed amendments came from the House managers, rather than from the Judiciary Committee. Asked by House Minority Leader Bertrand Snell of New York whether it would be “proper” for the committee to take up the new articles, Sumners said that wasn’t the case.

“I do not think it is at all necessary, for this reason: The managers are now acting as the agents of the House, and not as the agents of the Committee on the Judiciary,” Sumners said.

During the same floor debate, he explained that the changes were not all prompted by facts not previously in evidence, but that appeared to be the source of most of the updates in the charges sent to the Senate.

“Perhaps it would not be true to answer that entirely in the affirmative, but the changes are made largely by reason of new evidence which has come to the attention of the committee, and some of the changes, more or less changes in form, have resulted from further examination of the question,” he said. “This is somewhat as lawyers do in their pleadings. They often ask the privilege of making an amendment.”

The resolution to amend the articles of impeachment was ultimately adopted by voice vote, as was a resolution directing the House clerk to notify the Senate of the amended charges, as well as of the House’s grant of authority of managers to present exhibits about the new material.

The record of the Ritter case shows that House members did not intend to introduce entirely new crimes into the Senate trial after it had already started, but the precedent set would not seem to preclude that either.

“I intend to let this go through, but I do not want a practice established here which is wrong, that is, that this House informally, without notice, and without consideration, vote on new specific charges on which a man is to be tried in the Senate,” said Michigan GOP Rep. Earl Michener.

Ritter was ultimately convicted by the Senate on only one of the seven counts presented against him, but that was enough to remove him from office on April 16, 1936.

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