Impeachment, Vermont Style

A. Jeffry Taylor is a 62-year-old lawyer and Democratic activist in Rutland, Vermont. As a young lawyer in the Los Angeles office of the Justice Department, he prosecuted antitrust cases during the Watergate era. The corruption he witnessed firsthand within the Nixon administration (a high-ranking Justice official once told him not to pursue a case, he recalls, because the suspects were “friends of the President, and we don't sue friends of the President. Are you dumb?”) gnaws at him still. His blood is boiling now because of what he regards as another President's unlawful conduct -- namely, what he regards as President George W. Bush's flagrant violations of the Constitution's due-process guarantees.

In December, when Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced an impeachment resolution in Congress, Taylor welcomed it with open arms. The resolution, H. Res. 635, would create a select committee to investigate possible impeachable offenses by Bush.

To Taylor's dismay, however, the resolution bogged down in the GOP-controlled House. Three months after Conyers filed his resolution, only 32 congressmen had signed on as co-sponsors. The resolution was mired in the Rules Committee and was going nowhere fast.

That Congress must act to defend the Constitution by impeaching the President is a matter of blindingly-obvious urgency, as Taylor sees it. “The issue is so large and is affecting so many Americans that it would be an act of almost dishonesty on my part not to do something about it,” he says. “I look on it as an act of patriotism. It is not a choice but a moral imperative.”

While surfing a political blog in February, Taylor happened upon a reference to a back-door congressional maneuver and recognized it instantly as a means to dramatize the impeachment issue. Though members may file an impeachment bill in the House, which has the sole power to impeach a President, there is another way. A state legislature, too, may initiate impeachment proceedings, as according to the blog posting that caught Taylor's eye.

Taylor took the blog's cue and looked into a provision in a parliamentary manual penned by Thomas Jefferson and incorporated into the rules of the House. In Section 603, the manual provides that charges transmitted to the House from a state legislature can set “impeachment in motion.”

Taylor seized on the idea. If the Vermont Legislature were to vote for impeachment, he imagined, that would raise the temperature on the issue. “That's much more powerful in that you'd have a legislature in a state actually file charges,” he explains.

Not that the imprimatur of the Vermont Legislature alone would cause the House to budge on impeachment as long as the GOP retained control, Taylor figured. Still, if the Vermont Legislature went on the record as favoring impeachment, such an official, dramatic validation of the idea was bound to intensify public scrutiny of Bush's conduct.

If any state's legislature was fertile ground to nurture the impeachment movement, Vermont's looked promising. There would be no Republican stonewall to block such a resolution in either the Vermont Senate or House, both of which are predominantly Democratic (by 21-9 in the Senate and by 83-60 in the House, not counting the five Progressives and one independent in the latter chamber). Nor was there a risk of a gubernatorial veto, even though Vermont Governor James Douglas is a Republican, because an impeachment resolution adopted by a state legislature does not require a governor's signature.

Taylor reckoned that the Vermont Legislature would respond to the clamor from a pro-impeachment grass-roots movement, which he considered feasible in Vermont because it is a small state where, he says, “we all know each other.” Even if the prime movers were Democrats like himself, the drive to impeach would be “a matter not for party affiliation, but for Americans to right the wrongs and prevent further damage” from Bush's presidency, Taylor says.

Taylor set to work. He drafted a resolution, which urges the Vermont Legislature to initiate impeachment proceedings under Section 603 of the Jefferson Manual. Accusing Bush of high crimes and misdemeanors, the resolution says the President has “repeatedly and intentionally” violated the Constitution and other laws, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Torture Convention (a treaty subsumed into U.S. law). The alleged offenses that Taylor specifically cites include the “indefinite detention” of citizens and the warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.

“As a prosecutor, I said, here's a good case of a suspect -- I call him a subversive -- who not only admits what he did but was proud of it,” Taylor recounts, referring to Bush's acknowledgement that he ordered the warrantless wiretapping. (Bush's position is that the NSA did not have to obtain a warrant before conducting electronic surveillance in the war against terrorism, despite FISA language requiring it, and that in any case he has the authority to disregard that law.)

On February 28, Taylor proposed the resolution to the Rutland County Democratic Committee, which adopted it. At meetings during the next few weeks, the Democratic committees in seven of the state's 13 other counties did so as well. In a ninth, Grand Isle, the Democrats endorsed Taylor's reasons for impeachment but called on Congress, rather than the Vermont Legislature, to begin an impeachment investigation of Bush.

Although Taylor's proposal, which became known as the Rutland Resolution, was capturing Democrats' hearts on a county level, the party's statewide leaders either stayed mum or rebuffed the idea. House Speaker Gaye Symington gave it a thumbs down. The Senate's top Democratic leader, President Pro Tem Peter Welch, had nothing to say. Welch is running for Congress this year.

Even Congressman Bernie Sanders, an independent and one of the Bush administration's severest critics did not endorse the Rutland Resolution, though he favors an investigation of Bush for possible censure or impeachment. Sanders is a candidate for the U.S. Senate. His chief of staff, Jeff Weaver, had dismissed demands for impeachment as premature, saying that “we don't have the kind of proof needed.”

Despite the lack of support from on high for the Rutland Resolution, the Vermont Democratic state committee reacted to the groundswell for it on the county level by calling a special meeting to decide whether to back it. Meanwhile, starting in late March, six town meetings in Vermont had heightened interest in the impeachment issue by endorsing resolutions calling on Congress either to oust Bush from office or at least to investigate him for possible impeachable offenses.

On the bleak Saturday morning of April 8, about 100 Democrats dressed mostly in casual clothes of wool, fleece and denim gathered at a red-brick elementary school in the central Vermont town of Randolph. The meeting was open to the public. Before the state-committee members debated the resolution, they invited comment from spectators.

Twenty-five of them spoke, including Taylor. Virtually all the speakers inveighed against the Bush administration. Matthew Burgess of Morristown accused it of “deceit, despotism and disregard of the law.” Most of the speakers urged a vote for the Rutland Resolution, no matter what the cost to Democrats. Bob Hawk of Walden, said: “There is a time to set political expediency aside and do what's right. I think that moment has come.”

Taylor, a slip of a man wearing large glasses, said: “Little did I expect, when we drafted this resolution, that it would catch fire. But it really has.” Speaking in a soft, reedy voice, he parsed Section 603 of the Jefferson Manual. An impeachment motion filed under Section 603 “takes precedence over everything and eventually has to be heard,” he pointed out. When he finished talking, he received a standing ovation.

The tone of the meeting shifted once the state committee members had the floor. Their remarks about Bush's allegedly impeachable offenses were generally scathing, but they differed sharply about the wisdom of adopting the Rutland Resolution.

“Vermont has the opportunity to actually stand up and do something,” said Steve Schlipf of Georgia, urging a yes vote for the resolution. “Yes, it's symbolic. It's also very real.”

Opponents, however, noted that, if the Vermont Legislature had to grapple with the impeachment issue in the one or two months likely remaining in this year's session, the lawmakers would have too little time to do it justice. “If [the resolution] comes to my committee,” said Rep. Richard Marek, who represents three towns near Brattleboro and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, “I think there will be an obligation to treat it in a very thoughtful and deliberative fashion.” When the House completed its inquiry -- a job complicated by the lack of the necessary subpoena power, according to Marek -- the matter would have to go to the Vermont Senate for further deliberations.

Some critics of the resolution warned that banging the impeachment drum could be politically stupid for Democrats in an election year -- a period when the target of the Rutland Resolution happens to be the commander in chief at a time of war. “Is it worth losing a single legislative seat in order to move the legislation forward?” asked Bob Bland of Vershire. “I doubt that.”

After more than two hours of to-and-fro, the state committee voted on the Rutland Resolution. It failed, by a margin of 26 to 18. The Vermont Democrats then swiftly and unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Congress to investigate grounds for impeaching Bush. For good measure they endorsed Conyers' impeachment resolution and Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold's proposal to censure Bush.

Looking back on the defeat of his impeachment-via-Montpelier initiative, Taylor is unbowed. Yes, he concedes, the legislature might have had too little time to deal with the matter this year. “Time was the enemy,” he says. Not that he swallows the argument that the legislature would require subpoena power or would have to undertake an exhaustive investigation before it could justify advancing impeachment charges to the Congress. He likens the impeachment proceedings by a state legislature under Section 603 to a probable-cause hearing in a criminal case: “Those charges don't have to be proven at the time of the filing.”

Nor does Taylor agree that championing the impeachment cause would be disadvantageous to Democratic candidates. On the contrary, he says: “I think they should not be making excuses for speaking truth to power. I think it would strengthen a campaign.”

In fact, Taylor says, the seeming corpse of the Rutland Resolution may have breath left in it yet, especially if the Democrats regain a majority in the U.S. House. “The next goal is changing the Congress,” he says. “Then Section 603 can be resurrected. Call it Son of 603.”

Joseph Rosenbloom is a Prospect senior correspondent.