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Yes, the governor can be impeached right now

Yes, the governor can be impeached right now

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Michael A. Wolff, former chief judge of the Missouri Supreme Court, wrote that Gov. Eric Greitens cannot constitutionally be impeached for misconduct committed before he assumed office (“Impeachment: Are we there yet?” April 18). I admire Judge Wolff immensely. But I respectfully disagree.

First, the Missouri Constitution places no time limit on impeachable conduct. It defines impeachable behavior as “crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”

Some items on this list — “willful neglect of duty, corruption in office … or oppression in office” — unmistakably refer to official misbehavior. Several others are probably meant to have an official connection. “Incompetency” probably refers either to a debilitating mental breakdown or an evident inability to perform official functions. Similarly, “habitual drunkenness” before, but not during, an officeholder’s term can’t possibly be a sound reason to impeach.

Likewise, the phrase “any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office” could be interpreted to require that the words “in office” modify both “moral turpitude” and “oppression.” Then the phrase could be read like this: “any offense involving moral turpitude (in office) and oppression in office.” That’s at least plausible.

But Jim Layton, former solicitor general of Missouri, points out that, at the time this constitutional impeachment language was written in 1945, “oppression in office” was, and long had been, a specific statutory crime. Therefore, the phrase “oppression in office” was just the name of one offense for which an officeholder could be impeached. Thus, it is very unlikely that the words “in office” were intended to reach back up the sentence and limit the impeachability of an “offense of moral turpitude” to crimes committed during an officeholder’s term.

But even if we didn’t know this clarifying fact about old Missouri law, the real textual problem for Judge Wolff’s argument is that the constitutional list of impeachable conduct starts with the words “crimes (and) misconduct,” and those terms aren’t modified in any way that limits them to the period following assumption of official duties.

Most importantly, as a matter of good governance and common sense, the notion that a governor can’t be impeached for conduct that predates his inauguration can’t be right. If it were to be discovered that a governor had bribed election officials to help secure election, no one would suppose that the governor couldn’t be impeached on that basis, even though the conduct occurred before he took office.

Gov. Greitens’ defenders might concede that pre-inaugural misconduct can sometimes count, but insist that impeachment is limited to conduct directly related to the electoral or appointive process by which the person impeached gained office.

But that’s not what the Missouri Constitution says. And such a rule would be irrational. Suppose a sitting governor accepted bribes while he occupied a previous state position, or committed murder six months before his election. Would anyone seriously suggest that such a governor could not be impeached and removed? The necessity of impeachment is made clear by the multiple Missouri cases flatly holding that the only means of removing a constitutional officer (such as the governor) is impeachment, even if the officer has also been convicted of a crime. In short, if we can’t impeach a criminal governor, we’re stuck with him until his term expires, even if he’s sitting in jail as a convicted felon. That can’t be right. And the Missouri Constitution does not require that result.

Finally, Judge Wolff notes that there have been no federal impeachments for pre-office conduct. That’s true, but irrelevant. Missouri chose not to adopt the “high crimes and misdemeanors” formula of the U.S. Constitution. In Missouri, the words of the Missouri Constitution govern. Moreover, almost all federal impeachments have been of judges, and grounds for their removal are arguably limited to misconduct in office by the constitutional guarantee that they will remain in office “during good behavior.” Finally, no serious student of federal impeachment law doubts that federal officials could be removed for pre-office behavior if sufficiently serious.

The question for the Missouri House is not when the governor may have committed offenses, but whether such offenses fit within the words of the Missouri Constitution and are serious enough to merit impeachment.

Frank O. Bowman III is a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia.

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