Impeachment stirs local legal scholars

Hear ye! Hear ye! All persons are commanded to remain silent under pain of imprisonment.

Weighty words on Capitol Hill, and as the impeachment trial of President Clinton grinds on, expect to hear those words again and again in the days and possibly weeks to come. Among the most avid trial watchers is Pepperdine legal scholar Doug Kmiec. Kmiec said the term “trial” is misleading. It is not a legal proceeding but “political removal process,” and like it or not, the process is going forward the way it was designed. “That is about the first thing he’s said that I agree with,” said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. Chemerinsky was honored Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union, and, like Kmiec, he is often asked to comment on the case. Unlike Kmiec, he feels the course it has taken is “enormously disturbing.”

After the president’s lawyers finish presenting their defense, a move will be made to call witnesses such as Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Kenneth Starr. “If they call witnesses, there is absolutely nothing to be gained,” said Chemerinsky. Kmiec, on the other hand, said there are a few important things the country needs to hear. “The witness needed most is the president himself,” argues Kmiec, “to recognize that he is under the law.” Some say witness testimony is a foregone conclusion unless six GOP senators join the Democrats in a vote to dismiss.

Kmiec said that both dismissal and censure would be a mistake and that constitutionally speaking, the show must go on. Dismissal, he said, would be the equivalent of a hung jury. “You either get a two-thirds vote for conviction or a two-thirds vote for acquittal.”

What the two legal scholars do agree on is the role of the independent counsel. Kmiec notes that the current statute gives a special prosecutor such as Kenneth Starr “unlimited power” and sets a dangerous precedent. If the statute is not revised or repealed, impeachments could be commonplace and the country will move closer to a parliamentary system. As Kmiec sees it, “The independent counsel is the statute that loads this gun, and that gun will remain pointed in any direction.”

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