On Government and January 6, 2021

From the Mercury Messenger, by V.B. Price

Experiencing the intense civics lesson of the House hearings on the January 6 storming of Congress, chaired so eloquently and cogently by Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi’s Second Congressional District, Americans have been both troubled and energized by fundamental questions about the condition of our national character, about how our government is organized and how our laws work.

For instance, has partisan politics in America always been as vicious and unbending as it is today? Is it a criminal offense for officeholders to break their vows of office? Do office seekers break the law when they lie to Congress? Can they be held accountable? Can a president who has been impeached by the House and found not guilty by the Senate—twice—still be charged in federal court for crimes committed while serving in office? Does double jeopardy apply here? What does “the balance of powers” among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government really mean?

What lessons we’re learning! It’s become apparent that what happened on that dreadful day in early 2021 was not only an insurrection and coup, but a war between branches of government: the executive and the legislative. It was a real anything-goes war of aggression and it was on the verge of causing a fundamental rupture in our system of government and, perhaps, the death of our democracy.

The executive branch, headed by President Donald Trump, attacked the congressional branch, pure and simple. Trump incited rioters to go against the grain of American constitutional history by helping him assert dictatorial impulses to take over the country by denying the peaceful transfer of power. He did, in effect, exactly what the Constitution was designed to prevent through its structure and the provisions it makes for maintaining a balance of power among the branches of government. How can such behavior be interpreted as anything other than a hostile act, threatening the existence of the Constitution that the president vowed to “preserve, protect and defend”? 

When it comes to double jeopardy, if a president is impeached but not convicted, or impeached and convicted, he can still be tried for the same or similar crimes in federal court when he leaves office. The Fifth Amendment, which forbids the government trying a person for the same crime twice, does not apply to the impeachment in the House and senatorial conviction because they are political processes, not a criminal trial in a court of law.

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