Op-Ed: Misplaced Loyalty is Antithetical to Separation of Powers

STATE HOUSE — The following op-ed was submitted verbatim by James C. Sheehan, a Democratic state senator in the Rhode Island General Assembly.

British historian Lord Harold Acton famously said: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” After a war for independence against a tyrannical British monarchy, the framers of our United States Constitution knew too well how human nature is susceptible to the temptations of power.  That is why they built a safeguard against abuse of power and tyranny into the Constitution.  Separation of Powers is a safeguarding system of checks and balances among the three branches of our United States government.  The resulting balance of power has prevented tyranny and allowed liberty and democracy to flourish.

One vital constitutional check by Congress on the power and authority of the President is impeachment.  If a majority of House members believe that the president has committed serious wrongdoing, they may vote to impeach or “indict” the president.  On Dec. 18, 2019, the House voted to impeach President Donald J. Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The next step in the impeachment process is the trial set to take place in the Senate, and overseen by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. A conviction on the charges (called articles of impeachment) would require a two-thirds vote of the senators (present) acting as quasi-jurors.  In this trial phase, the president would be accorded full due process rights.  But what is yet to be determined are the Senate rules that will govern the trial process itself.

A trial of this gravity and magnitude demands process rules of utmost integrity.  However, if the recent remarks made by Senate Republican leadership are any indicator, the trial rules will be neither fair nor just.  Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has asserted that he did not have to be impartial because an impeachment trial is a political process not a judicial process.  Further, Leader McConnell astoundingly admitted that he is working in “total coordination” with the White House regarding President Donald Trump’s upcoming trial.

The apparent strategy of the McConnell/White House defense is to rig the Senate trial rules by blocking key witnesses in the impeachment trial, even first-hand, fact witnesses who could speak directly to the charges against President Trump.  Such first-hand fact witnesses are critical in determining guilt or innocence in any credible legal proceeding.  If denying key witnesses is part of the defense strategy, it must be concluded that their testimony would prove damaging to President Trump.

Republican Leader McConnell is mistaken in his claim that the Senate trial is simply a political process.  Unlike House members, ARTICLE I, Section 3 of the Constitution requires Senators take an “oath or affirmation” in the impeachment trial.  Current Senate rules clearly spell-out the exact meaning of this trial oath.  Each senator must affirm or swear to do “impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.”  In view of this fact, if Senate Majority Leader McConnell blocks witnesses, his actions must be viewed as a dereliction of duty and a betrayal of his solemn constitutional oath of office.

It is apparent from his brazen remarks that Sen. Mitch McConnell places loyalty to the president, the leader of his political party, above that to the Constitution.  This misplaced loyalty is inherently antithetical to the constitutional safeguard of Separation of Powers — no man is above the law!  Conducting an impartial impeachment trial is not about whose “side” a senator is on; it is about defending and upholding the United States Constitution, first and foremost.  For the sake of our republic, “rank and file” Senate Republicans must demand that the impeachment trial do “impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws” because no Constitution can long survive faithless abandonment by those public officials sworn to defend it!

James C. Sheehan is a Democratic state senator in the Rhode Island General Assembly.  He serves as the vice-chairman of the Rules, Ethics and Government Oversight Committee.  He resides in North Kingstown.

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