Impeach Kavanaugh? Precedent Says No, But Maybe

Updated on

Can He Be Impeached Only For Wrongdoings While In Office? 

WASHINGTON, DC, October 8, 2018 –  Although some key Democrats have suggested that, if they win control of the House in the November elections, they might try to impeach Kavanaugh – or at least use their subpoena power to probe allegations of prior sexual misconduct and/or perjury – an important precedent may stand in their way, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

The precedent comes from the attempted impeachment of Vice President Schuyler Colfax.

Gates Cap Management Reduces Risk After Rare Down Year

Gates Capital Management's ECF Value Funds have a fantastic track record. The funds (full-name Excess Cash Flow Value Funds), which invest in an event-driven equity and credit strategy Read More

While considering his impeachment, the House Judiciary Committee concluded that impeachment “should only be applied to high crimes and misdemeanors committed while in office and which alone affect the officer in discharge of his duties as such, whatever may have been their effect upon him as a man, for impeachment touches the office only and qualifications for the office, and not the man himself.”

Moreover, according to the authoritative Congressional Research Service [CRS], “it does not appear that any President, Vice President, or other civil officer of the United States has been impeached by the House solely on the basis of conduct occurring before he began his tenure in the office held at the time of the impeachment investigation, although the House has, on occasion, investigated such allegations.”

The CRS also reported that Congress has identified three types of conduct that constitute grounds for impeachment, and they all require that the acts occur when the person is already in office. These categories, which may not be exhaustive, include:

(1) improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of the office;

(2) behavior incompatible with the function and purpose of the office; and

(3) misusing the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

In short, for impeachment, what is arguably necessary is some serious wrongdoing that counts, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, as “the abuse or violation of some public trust,” and not even more serious crimes and other wrongdoing which may have occurred prior to the time a person assumed office.

If this precedent is still seen to control and is followed, Kavanaugh could not legally be impeached, and possibly removed from office following an impeachment trial in the Senate, for anything he may have done before assuming the presidency.

Fortunately for Democrats, there is another much more recent precedent which might help: federal Judge Thomas Porteous was removed from the bench by Congress in 2010 for, among other things, attempting to conceal, during his confirmation process, various acts alleged to have occurred in the past.

So it could be suggested that this more modern precedent would permit Kavanaugh to be impeached, and ultimately removed from office, for wrongdoings prior to taking office such as allegations of sexual misconduct, and/or lying under oath about these events or his drinking, etc.

Indeed, it could even be argued that these alleged falsifications – which supported and led to his confirmation – rendered his new appointment invalid from the very beginning, thereby putting into some question any Supreme Court decisions in which his vote was crucial.

While there may not be any established legal process for challenging decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that a voting member’s appointment was invalid – as there is, for example, with similar decisions rendered by federal agencies – such an invalidation argument might provide a justification for the high court itself to promptly revisit those decisions should Kavanaugh be removed through impeachment, and then be replaced by a less conservative judge, suggests Banzhaf.


Professor of Public Interest Law

George Washington University Law School,

FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,

Fellow, World Technology Network,

Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH),

2000 H Street, NW, Wash, DC 20052, USA

(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418  @profbanzhaf

Subscribe to ValueWalk!

Get updates on the latest posts and more from ValueWalk straight to your inbox.