Federal Judge Rules Impeachment Inquiry Is Legal

Judge Beryl Howell wasn’t sympathetic to GOP whining about process. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of the key White House/GOP talking points in the last several weeks is that the House impeachment inquiry that began no later than September 24 (when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced it) is illegal because the House didn’t formally vote to authorize it. It was never a particularly strong argument, since impeachments have on several occasions occurred without such preliminary votes. But so long as it was a partisan he-said she-said clash, Republicans figured at least their own people could enjoy the unity and righteous indignation associated with pretending the godless Democrats were recklessly violating the Constitution or violating sacred House rules.

Now, however, a federal judge has sided with Pelosi, as the New York Times reports:

The House is legally engaged in an impeachment inquiry, a federal judge ruled on Friday, delivering a major victory to House Democrats and undercutting arguments by President Trump and Republicans that the investigation is a sham …

In arguing that the impeachment inquiry is a sham, Republicans have noted that the full House has not voted for a resolution to authorize one, as it did in 1974 and 1998 at the start of impeachment proceedings targeting Nixon and Bill Clinton. Democrats have countered that no resolution is required under the Constitution or House rules, noting that impeachment efforts to remove other officials, like judges, started without one.

[D.C. District Court] Judge [Beryl] Howell agreed, calling the Republican arguments to the contrary “cherry-picked and incomplete” and without support in the text of the Constitution, House rules, or court precedents. She also noted that the House Judiciary Committee began considering whether to impeach of President Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, well before the full House approved a resolution blessing it.

This isn’t just a moral victory for House Democrats. It comes with some practical consequences, too:

The House Judiciary Committee is entitled to view secret grand jury evidence gathered by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, Judge Howell … ruled in a 75-page opinion. Attorney General William P. Barr had withheld the material from lawmakers.

Typically, Congress has no right to view secret evidence gathered by a grand jury. But in 1974, the courts permitted the committee weighing whether to impeach President Richard M. Nixon to see such materials — and, Judge Howell ruled, the House is now engaged in the same process focused on Mr. Trump.

Republicans will likely point at Howell’s Obama connection and continue to complain. But if they appeal the decision it probably won’t change. And at some point they may need to focus on the evidence of the president’s impeachable offenses instead of going for the capillaries with procedural objections.

Federal Judge Rules Impeachment Inquiry Is Legal