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House Democrats’ 21st Century Star Chamber

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

If a college student today was asked on an exam to explain what a “Star Chamber” was, the answer would be far likelier to have something to do with the “Star Wars” saga than to include any reference to the notoriously corrupt system of secret judicial proceedings that prevailed in England from the late 15th Century through the mid-17th. However, if the student’s answer noted that the impeachment proceedings now being orchestrated in the House of Representatives by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team of inquisitors bore a clear resemblance to Star Chamber proceedings, you would have to give that student at least a passing grade.

Students of British history would know as well that Star Chamber proceedings were conducted by Privy Counsellors and common-law judges according to arbitrary standards of “justice.” While such positions as Privy Counsellors are not found in 21st Century American government, the manner by which House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is proceeding in his effort to impeach President Trump, bears a striking resemblance to those British “jurists” of long ago. His colleague Jerry Nadler, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and also has targeted the President for removal, would fit the characterization just as nicely.

As with the Star Chambers of old, Schiff has shown a clear preference for conducting the business of investigating a sitting president in secret. He is able to do this because the committee he chairs is charged with conducting essential oversight of the federal government’s sprawling Intelligence Community, and dealing with the often highly-classified information necessary to carry out that responsibility. The Committee, which was established in the late 1970s, never was intended to serve as the vehicle by which the House considers the impeachment of a president. That awesome responsibility by rules of the House, always has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee. There are, however, reasons why the House Democrat leadership has opted not to follow such precedent, and turned instead to the Star Chamber model more suited to the highly partisan and vindictive nature of its current effort. 

The most recent presidential impeachment effort — conducted in 1998 against then-President Bill Clinton — provides a clear roadmap according to which a majority of House members would be able to achieve such result with transparency and the sort of due process that were anathema to Privy Counsellors three centuries ago.  

The impeachment process in 1998 was straightforward.  The full House adopted a Resolution to inquire into whether grounds to impeach Clinton existed, which then directed the Judiciary Committee to conduct such an inquiry.  The House openly adopted rules and procedures according to which the impeachment process was to proceed. In short order, the Judiciary Committee then proceeded to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses, receive evidence, and vote to adopt articles of impeachment.  Those articles were then voted on by the full House and, after receiving a majority vote, the matter of conducting a trial vested in the Senate.  

The impeachment process back then, in 1998, was fully consistent with historic precedent and in accord with existing House rules.  It was neither arbitrary nor secret.  And while Clinton’s supporters understandably found fault with the substance of the charges against him, and with the final results in the House, no legitimate charges could be leveled that the process lacked transparency, or that the President’s lawyers did not have access to all the same information on which the Republican majority relied for its work.

Contrast that with the proceedings currently proceeding under Pelosi’s direction — secret witnesses, secret transcripts, inconsistent rules, and multiple committee venues.  The process of live witnesses testifying in open committee has been replaced with un-named “whistleblowers” apparently coached in secret by Intelligence Committee staffers and members. Subpoenas — from Democrats only — fly frequently from that Committee (and from other committees) to the White House and various other Executive Branch officers.   

Finally, in their public pronouncements, Democrats sound more like the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland — calling for sentence first, then the trial — than they resemble public servants sworn to uphold the basic principles of due process, equal protection of the laws, and other norms of fair process for which our Founding Fathers declared the 13 colonies independent and separated from the British Crown.  Free of that very same sovereign that subjected its citizens the corrupt and unaccountable Star Chamber proceedings.

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