Paging Reality: It’s not time for impeachment

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It is getting ugly for John Swallow.

The attempt to resuscitate his political career by working as Attorney General has officially backfired. His political career is over, and his legal career, depending upon what surfaces, may be gone as well.

But should he be impeached? No. Not yet, at least.

Why, you ask? I’ll respond with a question. What country do we live in?

I’ve always taken it as “America 101” that we don’t punish people based upon popular opinion. Rather, we let due process run its course. If Swallow has committed a high crime, misdemeanor or abused others with the powers of his office, I would happily support impeachment. But we don’t have evidence of that just yet.

Right now we have evidence of extraordinarily bad judgement. That is an issue for voters in regularly scheduled elections, not impeachment. If bad judgement and looking corrupt were impeachable, we would have had to remove most of the legislature over its 2011 attempt to exempt itself from many open records requests.

Unfortunately, in our scandal-crazed media environment, public officials are often guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of many citizens and the media members that inform them.

Proponents of impeaching Swallow are citing federalist papers and other founding quotes suggesting that impeachment was meant to be a political process, not one that requires the due process generally afforded in our court system. They agree that we have precedent from the United States Federal Government because Utah’s Constitution uses the same phrasing as the federal one.

They quote numerous sources saying that removal from office should be considered to “preserve the integrity of the office.” But all those quotes come before the best precedent from the federal government on the subject, the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

The United States settled that we don’t remove people from office out of political convenience in 1868.

A Southern-born vice president had surprisingly become the head of the Union just after the Civil War. He promptly argued for a softer reconstruction than the northern states had asked for. It looked bad.

What could be more integral to the integrity of the Office of the President than the handling of a post-war situation in which hundreds of thousands of Americans had died?

Imagine members of Congress or senators going back to their district to explain to the families of those who had died fighting to save the Union that the Southerner who was now president didn’t want to be too harsh on the returning states. Even worse, he had violated the law to help with the process.

It must have felt like the most flagrant instance of cronyism in our nation’s history. Following the immense shedding of blood, it would be enough to make a 2009 congressional town hall meeting sound civil.

Instead, cooler heads prevailed. The president remained in office, and the nation set a precedent. Voters deal with bad judgement, impeachment is only used  for serious crimes and using one’s office to abuse someone else’s rights.

It is a tradition that has lasted, and it has created a stability in our government that is the envy of the world. The ability of our elected leaders to face the public on a regular basis while still being able to govern independent of immediate popular backlash allows for leaders to make difficult decisions and allow them to play out.

In Swallow’s case, some are suggesting that the situation looks corrupt, and therefore it would be easiest for the government if Swallow wasn’t in office any more.

“Let’s just agree that anytime the F.B.I., the Department of Justice, the Salt Lake County Attorney, the Davis County Attorney, the Lt. Governor’s office and the Utah Bar are investigating you, things are bad,” Rep Spencer Cox (R-Fairview) wrote in arguing for impeachment.

That is a horribly dangerous standard. It disregards our notion of due process in government and threatens to turn any unpopular or embattled politician into the next impeachment trial.

In 1868, following a very bloody Civil War, the look of a Southern-born president appearing to be soft on the Southern States was horrible to northern constituents. Add to it that President Johnson had committed a crime by violating the Tenure of Office Act and impeachment should have been a slam dunk, right?

Fortunately, our history books note that cooler heads prevailed. One only hopes the same will happen in Utah.

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