July/August 2014 Church & State | Editorial

Article III of the U.S. Constitution lays out the parameters for impeachment of federal officials.

These officials, who include judges, may be removed from office for “Conviction of Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

You will note that the Constitution does not say that judges can be removed for handing down decisions that far-right groups don’t like. Increasingly, though, some Religious Right activists are acting as if it does.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III recently struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. Jones, who in an eloquent opinion asserted, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” came under immediate fire from the Religious Right.

It’s one thing to criticize a judge’s ruling. Groups on the right and the left do that all of the time. It’s quite another to demand that a judge be removed from office for writing it.

Diane Gramley of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania insisted that Congress can remove judges like Jones – for no other reason than the way they rule.

Such an assertion is highly dubious. Federal judges have certainly been removed from office over the years. But it’s not a common thing, and those who have been successfully impeached have been found guilty of serious lapses in judgment or crimes.

A handful of federal judges were removed from office in the nineteenth century for being intoxicated while on the bench. More recently, judges were removed for crimes ranging from income tax evasion, accepting bribes and sexual assault.

The idea that federal judges can be removed from office merely for handing down decisions that some extremists don’t like is a long-running fantasy of the Religious Right. It has been promoted by discredited “Christian nation” booster David Barton, among others. Barton has written about using the threat of impeachment as a scare tactic to keep judges in line.

That’s what this is really all about. Impeachment, to the Religious Right, isn’t about punishing a judge for violating the law or abusing his or her office for personal gain. It’s a tool to be used as a threat. Judges will either toe the line and rule the way the Religious Right wants or risk losing their jobs.

Thankfully, the ploy isn’t getting much traction outside of extremist right-wing circles. Religious Right leaders love to rant about “unelected tyrants” on the bench who run roughshod over the will of the people, but Americans aren’t buying it. They know that an independent judiciary is a cornerstone of our nation’s legal system.

There is a mechanism for dealing with disappointing decisions from the federal courts. Parties always have the right to appeal, for example. They are also free to work to bring a different judicial philosophy to the bench. But they must use legal means and not rely on threats and intimidation.