Senate Begins Impeachment Trial of Federal District Judge Thomas Porteous

It hasn’t made too many national headlines. But today the Senate began to hear the impeachment trial of Louisiana federal district Judge Thomas Porteous:

The attorney for a federal judge facing removal from office argued Tuesday at a rare Senate impeachment trial that Congress is pursuing vague and unconstitutional charges against his client and would be breaking with precedent by convicting him.

Defense attorney Jonathan Turley told senators assembled in the chamber for the historic proceeding that some of the articles facing Judge G. Thomas Porteous are subjective and that others involve conduct that occurred before Judge Porteous was appointed to the federal bench…..

The House voted unanimously in March to bring four articles of impeachment against him. A two-thirds Senate vote is needed to convict. The proceeding is just the 16th impeachment trial before the Senate, and Judge Porteous could become just the eighth federal judge to be removed from office.

House prosecutors allege that Judge Porteous was racking up debt as he struggled with drinking and gambling problems. They say he began accepting cash, meals, trips and other favors from people with business before his court, beginning as a state judge in the 1980s and continuing after he was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

During previous evidence-gathering hearings, two attorneys who once worked with Judge Porteous said they gave him thousands of dollars in cash, including about $2,000 stuffed in an envelope in 1999, just before he decided a major civil case in their client’s favor.

Impeachment trials of federal judges are rare events. This is only the 13th in all of American history. Sometimes, as in the case of Judge Samuel B. Kent last year (see here for more), the threat of impeachment helps force a resignation, thereby obviating the need for a trial.

In Porteous’ case, the House of Representatives voted in favor of sending four articles of impeachment to the Senate by unanimous tallies ranging from 412-0 to 423-0. That doesn’t bode well for his chances. I also suspect that the Senate won’t be much moved by his lawyer’s argument that “much of the judge’s behavior [w]as business as usual in the New Orleans-area legal community.” The Senate is expected to vote on the case tomorrow.

UPDATE: The arguments of the two sides are described more fully in this account of the hearings held in September by the Senate Impeachment Trial Committee:

The basic facts are largely uncontested, [House Impeachment Manager Rep.] Schiff emphasized. Porteous admitted to receiving gifts, expensive meals and liquor, cash payments, and home and car repairs from a local law firm and bonding firm while he was a state court judge. Porteous also was accused of receiving cash and gifts from the law firm after he became a federal judge when he had a case pending before him in which the firm was representing the party that eventually won — a decision the Fifth Circuit overturned in an opinion that castigated Porteous for the baselessness of his decision for the prevailing party.

The gifts included paying for trips to Las Vegas and for the bachelor party of the judge’s son. Porteous apparently had a serious gambling problem — [Rep.] Goodlatte noted that his credit card statements showed $130,000 in gambling debts and $27,000 in ATM withdrawals at casinos. According to Schiff, the behavior of Porteous was a basic betrayal of public trust and so inimical that the Senate cannot allow him to remain on the bench.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley gave an opening statement for the defense….. Turley claimed that because Porteous was never criminally charged, the Senate must use the criminal standard of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt to find that Porteous committed any of the acts of which he is accused. Turley also contested the facts and claimed that while the judge may have been guilty of bad judgment, he did not break any laws, did not act unethically, and just engaged in business as usual in New Orleans.

UPDATE #2: The impeachment managers’ brief putting forward the evidence against Porteous is here. Here is Jonathan Turley’s very lengthy brief for the defense.