The week that was (12/9/2010)

Constitutional rights and powers are never far from center stage, writes David Adler.

In a week in which the news cycle has been dominated by negotiations on the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, it would be easy to overlook the exercise over the past several days of key constitutional powers and rights.

It’s a reminder that the Constitution is seldom far removed from center stage. The Constitution, it would appear, is all Broadway, all the time.

In case you missed it, in the past week alone, the impeachment power and the pardon power were sheathed to promote, in different ways, the cause of justice in America.

The Senate, meanwhile, began more seriously to exercise its constitutional power to grant “Advice and Consent” to treaties — in this case, the new START proposal. The wrangling between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of extending tax cuts for Americans, lest we forget, reflects not merely policy concerns but also the constitutional power of Congress to “tax and spend.” While we’re at it, let’s recall that the decision to publish some of the WikiLeaks documents reflects an exercise of the First Amendment’s “Freedom of the Press.”

The “Impeachment Power,” shorthand for the power of the House of Representatives to impeach a federal official or judge and the authority of the Senate to determine whether someone impeached ought to be removed from office, is one of those constitutional powers that is rarely dusted off and invoked. A few days ago, the Senate voted to remove from the bench Louisiana District Judge G. Thomas Porteous on four counts, including the impeachable offense of corruption, which falls within the category of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Porteous is only the eighth federal judge in the nation’s history to be removed by the Senate. The Senate also drew upon its constitutional power to prevent Porteous from holding another federal office. Nearly 20 years ago, the Senate removed Judge Alcee Hastings from the federal bench, but opted not to disqualify him from holding another office. That left Hastings free to run and win election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where currently he does his time.

In “The Week that Was,” President Barack Obama issued the first pardons — nine all told — of his presidency.

In one case, he granted a pardon to a former Marine who, while in service of his country, was convicted for “mutilating” U.S. currency. As a 20-year old, this soldier — and others — who became thirsty while toiling on their military base, removed the lip from pennies, thus converting them into dimes to place in the slots of machines to purchase sodas. The presidential pardon removed from the soldier’s record the stain of a felony.

David Adler is James A. McClure professor and director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho. He has lectured both nationally and internationally on the United States Constitution and the presidency.