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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

An Ethical Approach to an Impeachment Trial for Lawmakers

Chuck Schumer

Chuck Schumer

Mariana Perera

Photo Credit: Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Mariana Perera ’20 is a Hackworth Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

Now that the impeachment trial for Donald Trump has ended and a verdict was reached, it is a great time to analyze the role of ethics in these types of political processes and the implications that may arise when ethics are not taken into consideration by lawmakers.

In this blog, I will point out the role that lawmakers, in this case senators, play in the impeachment trial and argue that an ethical framework should be on the frontline when addressing this constitutional process. I will address what constitutes impeachment and the outside forces that tend to shape our political system and lawmakers’ decisions. Finally, I will provide the basis for five ethical approaches and pose questions that lawmakers could ask themselves when attempting to make an ethical decision on an impeachment trial.

Recent allegations regarding the Trump administration have brought the term of impeachment to the headlines in the United States, yet it is estimated that only around 30% of the population can properly define this constitutional power. Impeachment, according to the U.S. Constitution, is when an official is indicted by the House of Representatives on the charge of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” If said official is impeached, they face a trial in the Senate and are either removed from office or acquitted. However, the framers did not specify what type of actions qualified as “high crimes,” leaving this clarification to the interpretation of those in Congress at the time of impeachment. These lawmakers, corresponding to their political party, are faced with hard decisions that can be easily swayed by their incumbent status, media, and lobbying forces.

Under the United States’ Constitution, this power grants members of Congress a great responsibility to carry the acts of impeachment out properly and only act on them when it is just. However, what “properly” means varies greatly by the individual and their morals, creating a sense of inconsistency. As citizens delegate their authority to representatives through our elections and electoral districts, the chosen members have a duty to represent the interests and needs of their constituents while upholding the Constitution. This position of trust gives representatives an additional ethical responsibility when making decisions like those required during an impeachment proceeding.

The idea of removing a sitting president from office may create implications that people see as unethical or unfair. For example, does removing a president disenfranchise the people who voted them in? If a crime is overlooked and the president stays in office, does it incentivize future presidents to overstep their power?

Given our two-party system, the process of impeachment and potential removal of a president is divisive in its nature and hard on the nation, particularly amid such a partisan atmosphere. This phenomenon can encourage members of either party to weigh in favor of special interests or those with power, rather than on the best interests of their constituency or in constitutional manners. This was evident throughout Donald Trump’s impeachment where votes were almost always cast along party lines.

For a government to function adequately, it is imperative that both Democratic and Republican politicians abide by an ethical framework when proceeding with an impeachment trial, rather than allow their partisan ties to rule their decisions. When calling for an impeachment proceeding, politicians must consider these questions based on the five following ethical approaches:

Utilitarian

This framework states that an ethical action is one that “provides the most good or does the least harm.” It focuses on having the overall good outweighing the bad. For this framework, it is important to look at the distinct stakeholders and how a decision will impact each group.

Will more citizens benefit from a removal of office? If the president was elected to represent all citizens, will lack of removal in the case of a crime put them all at risk?

Rights

The rights approach sees the ethical action as one that “best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected.” In the case of an impeachment trial, the president and the citizens who are relying on the president’s leadership would be affected by his potential removal.

Is the impeachment proceeding respecting the president’s dignity? Will both parties treat the other with respect and secure their rights? Who are the stakeholders? How will removing the president impact the rights that citizens have as voters?

Fairness

Another approach that can be taken into consideration is fairness, which focuses on the equality of human beings. This approach sees ethical actions as those that “treat all human beings equally—or if unequally, then fairly based on some sort of standard.”

Is there fair reasoning based on defensible standards for the charges? Will impeaching the president be treating him like an equal to citizens? Would members of each party approach the trial in the same manner if the parties were switched?

Common Good

The common good approach sees “life in community [as] good in itself and [assumes] actions should contribute to that life.” Under this approach, relationships are based on respect and compassion, especially towards those in vulnerable positions.

Is it for the best interest of all U.S. citizens, regardless of partisan affiliation? What do we define as the common good? Does removal serve the community as a whole? Are checks and balances working properly? Is the Constitution being respected as the law of the land?

Virtue

Finally, the virtue approach consists of taking ethical actions that are “consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity.” This approach emphasizes high potentials within our character and expects us to uphold these values.

Does the impeachment process support the ideals put in place by the Constitution? Are the accusations that the president is being charged with against the country’s values? The lawmakers’ own virtues? What does this say about each senator? Should they place their partisan virtues over their personal ones? Over public ones?

Following are some tips and ideas for lawmakers to take into consideration when addressing an impeachment trial ethically:

Lawmakers must look at the acts under which a president is being impeached to asses the impact these acts could have on future situations or the power that is granted to the executive branch. For example, if they allow a president to invite foreign intervention in elections that have the potential to undermine voters, they would be ignoring the constitutional process that gives citizens a right to vote and expand the power of the executive. Similarly, if a president is removed when they have not committed a crime or there is insufficient evidence for a removal, the legislative branch would be overstepping their power and taking it away from citizens who voted for the president. The actions that take place in the trial can serve as precedents for impeachments and will impact how they are approached and thought of in the future. For this reason, ethics should be at the center of the process.

Lawmakers should ensure the process is the proper length and that all sides of the case are looked at thoroughly and with enough time. Rushing into a decision or a trial without all possible facts present can diminish the potential for an ethical decision and a fair verdict.

Overall, lawmakers take on a very important role when an impeachment inquiry is brought upon them; they must consider who they represent, what values they personally stand for, and what they ultimately believe is the truth. For democracy to be promoted and sustained, it is imperative that, when brought forth to the Senate, an impeachment trial is carried out ethically and fairly, for the best of the country and its citizens.

Feb 10, 2020

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