The impeachment trial of Louisiana federal district court Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. got underway promptly at 8:00 a.m. today in the main hearing room of the Hart Senate Office Building. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) and Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) led off the prosecution under the four articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives by giving an opening statement.
Schiff laid out the impeachment charges and Goodlatte went through the facts of the accusations against Porteous. Were they on the floor of the House debating a bill, Schiff and Goodlatte would no doubt be vigorously arguing against each other, given their disparate political views. But they worked pretty well together explaining to the Senate Impeachment Trial Committee what this case is about.
The basic facts are largely uncontested, Schiff emphasized. Porteous admitted to receiving gifts, expensive meals and liquor, cash payments, and home and car repairs from a local law firm and bonding firm while he was a state court judge. Porteous also was accused of receiving cash and gifts from the law firm after he became a federal judge when he had a case pending before him in which the firm was representing the party that eventually won — a decision the Fifth Circuit overturned in an opinion that castigated Porteous for the baselessness of his decision for the prevailing party.
The gifts included paying for trips to Las Vegas and for the bachelor party of the judge’s son. Porteous apparently had a serious gambling problem — Goodlatte noted that his credit card statements showed $130,000 in gambling debts and $27,000 in ATM withdrawals at casinos. According to Schiff, the behavior of Porteous was a basic betrayal of public trust and so inimical that the Senate cannot allow him to remain on the bench.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley gave an opening statement for the defense, although Porteous had a long line of other defense counsel sitting at his table. Turley claimed that because Porteous was never criminally charged, the Senate must use the criminal standard of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt to find that Porteous committed any of the acts of which he is accused. Turley also contested the facts and claimed that while the judge may have been guilty of bad judgment, he did not break any laws, did not act unethically, and just engaged in business as usual in New Orleans.
Turley claimed it would be unconstitutional to remove Porteous for any actions that occurred prior to his appointment as a federal judge. This was actually an argument that Rep. Schiff had anticipated, because he argued in his portion of the opening statement that there is no basis for such a claim. It would mean that a federal judge who was, say, convicted of a murder that occurred prior to his confirmation, or who bribed his way onto to the bench, could not be removed, even if he was sent to prison — a completely untenable circumstance.
The hearing room was set up like a courtroom, with defense counsel seated on the right, and the prosecuting House members seated on the left. Rep. Hank Johnson (D., Ga.), one of the House prosecutors, came in late and sat down at the wrong table with the defense attorneys until someone whispered in his ear and he moved.
Unlike regular congressional hearings, where committee members are often not present or wander in and out of the hearing (and sometimes the hearing is conducted with only one or two members there), ten of the twelve members of the committee were present. In fact, seven members must be present for the hearing to continue.
For anyone who wants to watch, the trial is being carried live on the Committee’s website here.