Getting Rid of Bad Federal Judges

October 06, 1992

Federal judges guilty of bad behavior are supposed to be removed from office by impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate. Since this is a difficult and time-consuming procedure, it has seldom been used. In many cases in which judges were not living up to the constitutional requirement of "good behavior," they have been left alone. To be truly independent and willing to put their interpretation of the Constitution above the popular mood and above politics, judges should be beyond the reach of other branches of government except in cases of obvious, outrageous misconduct.

But while the Congress almost never acted, the impeachment club was always in the closet. Judges were restrained by its potential. Now a federal district court judge, Stanley Sporkin in the District of Columbia, has issued a ruling which, if upheld, would effectively end practically all use of the impeachment mechanism in judicial misconduct cases. He did that by ruling that when there has been no previous courtroom trial and conviction, the Senate can remove federal judges only after a Senate trial in which all 100 senators see and hear all the evidence, every witness, every argument, in person. That could tie the Senate up for months for one trial. Clearly an impossibility if the Senate is to do its other duties.

The Senate has been using a special impeachment committee to hear all the evidence, then present its findings to the full Senate for a vote. (Videotapes of the presentation of evidence and arguments to the committee are available to all senators.) That seems to us workable, fair and constitutional. We hope the Supreme Court, which takes up the question in another case on Oct. 14, will refute the Sporkin view.

What is needed is some way to protect the administration of justice from unqualified judges while protecting even those judges from political pressure. Congress has set up a special commission to study the problem. However the Supreme Court deals with the Senate-trial requirement, the commission needs to come forward with some new mechanism for disciplining the federal judiciary.

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