An Intelligent Choice for A Key Panel

By Terence J. Anderson
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

No one can reasonably question Alcee Hastings's qualifications to serve as chairman of the House intelligence committee. For seven years he has been one of the committee's hardest-working members. In 1996 he was selected to represent Congress as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and two years ago he became the first American elected president of the assembly. He is highly intelligent, a fact acknowledged by friend and foe alike, and during his seven terms in the House he has been an effective politician and consensus builder.

Ruth Marcus[op-ed, Nov. 1] and others have argued, however, that Hastings should not be appointed chairman because of the Senate's decision 17 years ago to remove him from the federal bench. Such arguments ignore important facts that should be considered before the next speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, decides on the chairmanship.

First, no "jury" that heard and considered all the evidence has been convinced that Hastings was guilty. In 1983 the trial court jury that heard the evidence and arguments on both sides voted to acquit. Six years later, the Senate delegated the task of hearing the evidence to a Senate Impeachment Trial Committee. The 12 senators on that committee were the only members who actually heard all of the evidence, and there was no alleged crime on which the required two-thirds of those senators voted to convict. One year later a Florida Bar committee examined the evidence and decided that it was not enough to justify formal proceedings that would question Hastings's fitness to practice law. Those who now cite isolated events to argue that Hastings was guilty ignore the rest of the facts. Each of the "juries" that considered all of the facts found that he should be acquitted.

Second, in any fair view, perceived political necessity was a significant, perhaps decisive, factor in the decision to remove Hastings from the bench. Most observers thought the 1983 acquittal ended the matter, and the House made no effort to initiate impeachment proceedings at that time. But that acquittal brought passionate reactions from some powerful officials. Hastings's exoneration meant that the FBI and the Justice Department had shot themselves in the foot. It meant that U.S. attorneys would have to prosecute criminal cases based on evidence gathered and presented by FBI agents before the very judge they had unjustly attacked but failed to remove from the bench.

The other federal judges who had served with Hastings in Florida welcomed his return to active service. It was John Godbold, then chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, who decided that the situation was intolerable and that Hastings had to be removed. He appointed and chaired the committee that prepared the report the Judicial Conference of the United States certified to the House of Representatives in 1987 for "consideration of impeachment." Only then did the House initiate impeachment proceedings.

Third, senators who had not heard the evidence filed statements that make it clear that some voted for removal not because they were convinced Hastings was guilty but because they believed he had not proven his innocence. For example, Robert Dole, the Senate minority leader then, said he had voted to remove Hastings because for him the issue was, "Would the Senate vote to confirm Alcee Hastings if he were nominated by the President today?" Similarly, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) explained that he had voted for removal because: "Like 'Caesar's wife,' [federal judges] must be, simply, beyond reproach, even suspicion."

In contrast, senators who had heard the evidence thought the House failed to prove Hastings's guilt. For example, Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Impeachment Trial Committee, and Vice Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), both of whom had heard all the evidence, filed separate statements explaining why they had concluded that it was neither clear nor convincing enough to support a vote to convict.

Fourth, no senator suggested that the Senate should impose the additional sanction authorized by the Constitution, that Hastings should be disqualified "to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States." Those who object to his appointment as chairman of the House intelligence committee because of the Senate's decision to remove him from the bench 17 years ago need to explain why we should not also respect the Senate's decision then that he should not be barred from holding an office of honor and trust.

Hastings could have avoided all this by simply resigning after the 1983 acquittal. He would have earned substantially more as a lawyer than as a judge. He could have successfully run for the office he now holds without the baggage his detractors cite. He did not. He endured those burdens and fought to protect the office of federal judge rather than his own interests. That is not the conduct of a guilty man.

Hastings was appointed seven years ago to serve on the intelligence committee, a position requiring the highest trust and honor. No one questioned his fitness then. His work on the committee has vindicated the decision to entrust him with the nation's most important secrets. Such questions arise now, in the context of one party's loss of control of Congress and in an obvious attempt to undermine the nation's confidence in the leadership of the newly elected controlling party. They are the kind of distraction the new leadership should ignore.

The writer is a law professor at the University of Miami. He represented Alcee Hastings in all matters related to his judicial office from 1981 to 1993, including the trial of his impeachment in the Senate. His e-mail address istanderso@law.miami.edu.


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