What should we expect the work of “impartial justice” to look like?


To begin the impeachment trial, the oath to the U.S. Constitution isn’t enough.

The U.S. Senate has now become something different. They have received the articles of impeachment and taken a second oath. We’re familiar with the oath they take an oath to the Constitution when they are first elected. To begin the impeachment trial, they took a second oath to impartial justice. 

 Jeff Tulis, Government Professor at the University of Texas, says this is an effort to “recompose the body.” Meeting in the same room, their “offices change completely, so they no longer have a majority/minority leader, committee chairs, and all that sort of thing.” 

You can catch his Impeachment 101 walkthroughs on this Vox podcast or this interview on the local news from Austin, Texas. 

Two former U.S. Senators tried to lend their expertise to their colleagues too. In a 44-page memo titled “Presidential Impeachment Trial: What a Senator Should Know,” Russ Feingold and Chuck Hagel explain the significance of this second oath:

“This oath makes explicit in the context of trying a particular President, senators must be bound by a sense of impartial duty to the country and the Constitution, and put aside any political motivations in order to fulfill their constitutional duties.”

When it comes to thinking about our representatives who have already made public statements affirming their loyalty to President Trump and the Republican Party, Jeff Tulis and William Kristol write in their op-ed for The Bulwark:

“Human beings will still be fallible, opinionated, even prejudiced. 

Indeed our Founders expected no less. But there is a big difference between lamentably falling short of the highest standard and actively scorning it.”

That op-ed provides a good rundown on how the oath works, even in, or especially in, this “it isn’t the same thing as a criminal trial” scenario. Extend what you want to bring to the conversation with former Senator Patrick Leahy’s concern for the “long shadow” of the decisions made this week. Or consider what two constitutional lawyers’ have to say on why we’re talking about blocking evidence instead of hearing it (full disclosure: those two lawyers are Neal Katyal and George Conway III). 

It’s important to talk about impeachment this week, but you know that already. It’s also important that we avoid discussing it through questions of partisan strategizing. The punditry will have that covered. There’s something more important for the engaged citizens who will take these questions up at the coffee shop or over lunch. 

It’s essential to keep our constitutional scheme in operation through all of these deliberations. That’s the work we need to do as engaged citizens this week.