Impeachment begins at home

Jefferson’s obscure Rule 603 has sparked an impeachment movement in America’s statehouses—one the press is trying hard to ignore

Over the last couple of weeks, impeachment supporters packed the Crest, and an impeachment resolution was introduced in the state Assembly. But the “I” word never showed up in the local news.

Over the last couple of weeks, impeachment supporters packed the Crest, and an impeachment resolution was introduced in the state Assembly. But the “I” word never showed up in the local news.

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Rumblings about impeachment have been growing louder and louder in the alternative press and blogosphere over the past few months. There, the clamor’s reached such a fever pitch that some believe it signals that it’s time—past time—to bring the “I word” into mainstream discussion.

Sacramento has been the center of some notable impeachment activity in the last two weeks—though you wouldn’t know it by reading the mainstream press.

First came a resolution introduced on April 22 by state Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-Los Angeles, asking California’s Legislature to initiate impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The legislation relies on a largely forgotten congressional rule giving statehouses power to start the impeachment ball rolling.

Next was an overwhelming aye vote on April 29 by delegates to California’s Democratic Convention to put on record the party’s support for a proclamation calling for impeachment of Bush and Cheney.

Then, on the same day as the Democratic convention, a crowd of 1,000 packed into the Crest Theatre for a panel discussion, “Impeachment: Dialogue, Debate and Action,” sponsored by the Progressive Caucus of California’s Democratic Party.

And by the whooping, foot-stomping and standing ovations that erupted frequently throughout the evening’s discussion, the decision was unmistakable: “Let the impeachment begin.”

The panel featured Koretz, with U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, D-California; Shayana Kadidal, lead attorney from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the author of articles of impeachment against Bush; Elizabeth de la Vega, former lead prosecutor in San Jose and the author of an upcoming book on impeachment; and Bob Fertik, president of and co-founder of Mike Malloy, a popular talk-show host on Air America radio, moderated the discussion, which varied from the legal ins and outs of allegations levied against the president and vice president to the climate in the U.S. House and Senate to the mechanism that allows states to call on Congress to begin impeachment investigations.

“I’ve thought for several years that Bush and Cheney should be impeached,” Koretz said. “But it only occurred to me a few weeks ago that it might need to be initiated by me.”

For months, bloggers have been bandying about a little-known rule from a book of parliamentary procedures written by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 when, as vice president, he presided over the Senate. Koretz, not a computer whiz by his own admission, nevertheless heard about the so-called Rule 603 floating about in the blogosphere. He was excited. Surely, someone in California, he thought, would pursue it. He watched the Internet, and he waited. Then, when he found no one working to get California’s Legislature to consider an impeachment resolution, he decided he’d have to do it himself.

“Most of my staff told me I was crazy. But this needs to be done.”

The impeachment amendment that Koretz submitted is currently sitting in the Assembly Rules Committee. It relies on Section 603 of Jefferson’s Manual of Rules, which sets out “charges transmitted from the legislature of a State or Territory” as one method of “setting an impeachment in motion.”

The House Rules list Jefferson’s Manual as a recognized authority, saying its “provisions shall govern the House in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with the rules and orders of the House.” The U.S. House of Representatives alone may adopt articles of impeachment, while the Senate is responsible for conducting impeachment trials.

California is the third state to consider initiating impeachment based on Rule 603. Representatives in Illinois and Vermont also have asked their legislatures to pass resolutions calling for the president’s impeachment. California’s resolution has gained some early support in the Assembly. Koretz reported that Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, wants to sign on as a joint author of the resolution, and a half-dozen Assembly Democrats have expressed interested in being named as co-authors of the resolution.

Like the resolution that won assent from delegates at the state Democratic Convention on April 29, Assembly Joint Resolution 39 charges Bush and Cheney with intentionally misleading Congress and the American people about the threat from Iraq in order to justify an unnecessary war, conspiring to torture prisoners, holding American citizens without charges or trial and spying on American citizens. The Assembly resolution further accuses the president and vice president of federalizing the National Guard and leaking and covering up the leak of the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson.

The resolution would have to be passed by both California’s Assembly and Senate before moving on to likely death in the House of Representatives. As it is, AJR 39 awaits a hearing in the Assembly Rules Committee, which is bound neither by a time requirement to hear the resolution nor by a requirement even to consider it at all.

Koretz has no illusions about the likelihood of success for AJR 39. Even if it’s passed, it’s doubtful that the Republican-controlled Congress would act on it. But, Koretz said, it’s necessary to get the debate started. “We need to make the dialogue ubiquitous enough that Bush and Cheney have to answer these charges. We need to hold them accountable for treading on the Constitution.”

There’s talk that the three state resolutions would become moot if Democrats are successful in retaking the House and Senate in November. That’s what Malloy thinks will happen. But he said the states should go forward nevertheless: “It’s important that state legislatures go on the record as seeing Bush as impeachable. History needs to know this.”

Six towns in Vermont—along with communities across the country—have brought impeachment resolutions forward even though they don’t have anything with the apparent force of Rule 603 to demand that the House initiate impeachment.

On May 1, a bookstore owner from Vermont hand-delivered copies of resolutions adopted by three local communities to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois. She also took copies to Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan.

Not a single journalist from the mainstream media turned out to report on the handover.

Conyers, who is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, also has introduced a resolution to create a select committee to investigate the administration’s actions in regard to the war in Iraq, torture and retaliation against critics, “to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment.” As of April 28, the resolution had attracted 35 co-sponsors, but the House has taken no action on the legislation.

Koretz is frustrated by the apathetic reception that his own resolution in the California Legislature has received from California’s press. His office sent press releases to major newspapers and broadcast media up and down the state: “Mainstream media, I have to say, quite intentionally are choosing not to cover it.”

Malloy, who wrote for CNN for many years before he moved to talk radio, blames the reluctance of mainstream news directors and editors to pursue the impeachment story on their fear of being branded as left-wing kooks or conspiracy nuts.

But a groundswell of support may be rising as the debate continues to push at the edges of the mainstream from a variety of angles. Democratic Party leaders in four other states—New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin—have voted to urge Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Bush. Marveling at the rowdy enthusiasm of the crowd at the Crest Theatre, Waters believes the time has come: “Look at this audience! I now believe it’s worth pursuing impeachment, because look at the debate it’s creating.”