Historian Saul Cornell on Originalism and the Impeachment Process


Fordham University historian Saul Cornell asks, “How should the Constitution’s provisions on impeachment be interpreted?”  I am glad to see a historian weighing-in here.

Here is a taste of Cornell’s piece at The New Republic:

Another problem with originalism’s approach to history is its static (which is to say, decidedly ahistorical) view of the past. American legal and constitutional history did not pause in freeze-frame when the Constitution was ratified in 1789. And constitutional meaning has likewise not remained frozen over the course of American history, a point that the Founding generation well understood. Even James Madison came to recognize that constitutional meaning would evolve, both through the decision of the courts and through actions taken by the people themselves beyond the formal jurisdiction of the courts. In the 1790s, Madison vigorously opposed Alexander Hamilton’s belief that the Constitution allowed the federal government to charter a bank, but by the era of the War of 1812 he had come to realize that such an institution was a necessity—and all branches of the federal government and the American people had also embraced the federally chartered financial system in a host of ways by then.

Finally, in contrast to originalists, liberal legal scholars need to recognize that interpreting the Constitution inevitably requires some form of translation—taking concepts rooted in the realities of the eighteenth century and trying to make sense of them in our own. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of translation to the entire enterprise of constitutional interpretation is to look at a claim made by the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, during that committee’s impeachment inquiry last month. Nunes claimed that Trump’s efforts to use Rudolph Giuliani to conduct a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine were no different from George Washington’s decision to dispatch John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain in the 1790s.

In his flat-footed historical analogy, Nunes suggested that his House Democratic colleagues likely would have impeached Washington for dispatching Jay. Of course, any comparison between Giuliani and Jay is preposterous on multiple levels. Jay was a co-author of The Federalist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and had extensive diplomatic experience, notably stemming from his tenure as the secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation. He was not only one of the most distinguished lawyers of the Founding generation but was one of the most experienced diplomats in the new nation. Moreover, at the time that Washington turned to Jay to negotiate a treaty, there was nothing even remotely resembling the modern State Department. The original State Department consisted of six employees. (By 1824, the department’s staff had more than doubled, to a size of 13.) The geopolitics of the Jay overture were also strikingly different from those of the Ukraine affair: Jay was then negotiating for America from a position of weakness with the most powerful nation on earth. In 2019, America was the most powerful nation on earth, and Ukraine was in a position much weaker than America was at the time of the Jay treaty. Finally, and most importantly, Jay was advancing American interests and acting as an official representative of the American nation; he was not a private actor furthering Washington’s personal interests (and his own).

Moreover, if Nunes had dug deeper, he would have learned that many Americans did demand that Washington face impeachment. (Effigies of Jay were burned in cities across the new nation, a fate that Giuliani has thus far avoided.) Washington rebuffed demands from the House of Representatives that he turn over documents related to Jay’s instruction: Indeed, Washington’s decision laid the groundwork for the idea of executive privilege that the Trump administration has repeatedly asserted over the course of today’s impeachment proceedings. (The concept of executive privilege claims no originalist pedigree to speak of. It appears nowhere in the text of the Constitution and can’t be sanctioned by a strict originalist theory of interpretation.) Yet once he’d asserted this privilege, Washington himself expressly conceded that if Congress requested such materials in the context of an impeachment inquiry, he would have to produce them. Thus, a genuine examination of the relevant history here not only undermines Nunes’s facile analogy, but also sets up the foundation for another impeachable offense. The refusal of the Trump administration to turn over documents critical to the House’s impeachment inquiry is itself an example of a high crime and misdemeanor and hence an impeachable offense.

Read the entire piece here.