A Modest Proposal: Paterson should impeach the entire New York State Senate
Update: Paterson has requested TV time at 5pm today to discuss the stalemate. Many think he’s going to announce he’s appointing a Lieutenant Governor, which would break the stalemate by a single vote. However, the Democrats have been fragmenting since this began (you’ll recall it was not just Pedro Espada but Ruben Diaz who defected to the GOP, with Diaz later returning) and it would only take another two defections to again throw the body into disarray, not to mention, it would leave unsettled the question of whether Espada’s election to Senate President is still valid. Go ahead, Governor, appoint a lieutenant, to clear the lines of success. But may I still suggest this as a Plan B?
Governor Paterson has been convening the wrong chamber of legislators for five weeks now. Every day, he sends a special order to the Senators to convene an emergency session, and every day, they gavel in and out without taking up legislation. There have already been ramifications to the petty disgrace the Senators are inflicting on the state. So, why not impeach them? Here’s how it would work:
1. Paterson would call a special session of the New York State Assembly to consider Articles of Impeachment against the 62 New York State Senators; all of them. The high crimes and misdemeanors against them amount to one simple charge: failing to represent and carry out the work of the people of New York State. Add in failure to support and defend the Consitution of New York State, if you want. Here is the oath of office:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the constitution of the United States, and the constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ……, according to the best of my ability;
It’s pretty clear none of the Senators are upholding their end of the bargain.
2. A Court of Impeachment would be convened. Now, if you’re thinking of the federal model where the Senate sits as the court, you’d be thinking by now, duh, this isn’t going to work. The senators won’t or can’t impeach themselves. But New York’s rules are just different enough to matter.
The state constitution says: “The court for the trial of impeachments shall be composed of the president of the senate, the senators, or the major part of them, and the judges of the court of appeals, or the major part of them.”
Got that? The state Court of Appeals, the seven member high court of New York, would get to sit on the court of Impeachment. New York State Law is a little blurry about whether the Senators would be seated in judgment, but I think they would not be allowed to, since they themselves are on trial. Note again in the relevant sentence above, what is being convened is a Court of Impeachment composed of the Senators and the seven highest judges in the state; NOT a session of the New York State Senate. So, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman would likely be made the presiding officer, and I think there’s a pretty strong precedent to not allow the accused to vote on their own guilt or innocence, hence excluding the senators from being part of the impeachment court.
Now it comes down to political will: would the judges rebuke the entire Senate this way? First, if this all sounds crazy, keep in mind, entire national governments are regularly dissolved and snap elections held in countries we consider advanced democracies, who use the prime minister system of government, like the United Kingdom. While rare, vast majorities of elected officials are sometimes thrown out of office in these elections. But we’re talking about a state legislature here. There are no matters of national security to worry about; the work being done is important enough to not delay with petty bickering, but not so important that they can’t all be replaced.
I’d love to see the argument of the Court of Appeals, given the chance to impeach, explain that the senators are somehow not committing a crime against its office by not convening over this power struggle. Make no mistake, the bar for removal would be high and the court might be circus, but not kangaroo: it would take five judges to vote in favor of impeachment to hit the required 2/3rds vote.
The second question whose answer is necessary to gain support for impeachment would be, what would Paterson announce as his plan, should the judges indeed throw out the Senate? This tricky. The options as I see them are: leave the chamber vacant, appoint a new Senate, call a special election, or, my favorite, I’ll call it Plan X.
First, a vacant chamber is essentially what we already have. It wouldn’t work because any bills taken up the Assembly couldn’t be signed into law without first passing the Senate.
Second option, appointing a new Senate, even temporarily, will be a logistical and nightmarish challenge for an already unpopular governor.
Third, a special election: a good idea, but pricey and not able to be immediately conducted, leaving an impossible gap intime. Perhaps it would work in conjunction with Plan X.
And Plan X is this: appoint one neutral Senator, make her from the district of Albany, say, to automatically vote Yea on legislation passed by the Assembly. The point would be to turn New York’s legislatures into a unicameral one. There’s no need for two chambers anyway; the Senate has certainly proved it’s expendable.
So appoint a former clerk or parliamentarian to simply sit there, convene, vote Yea, and adjourn, any time the Assembly passes a bill. If the sole Senator got any big ideas, she wouldn’t be able to pass them without the Assembly’s help anyway. The only problem is that the Senator would probably have to be temporary president of the Senate and so would be in line for the governorship. But a politically neutral good government type would be a welcome relief as a caretaker governor, should Paterson for some reason not finish his term.
From here, New York voters could either call a constitutional convention to abolish the Senate, or hold regular elections and let impeached Senators make a case as to why they deserve to be reseated. Here is where I’d love to say we can use the Internet or some other electronic means to streamline the process, but this state can barely get basic democracy right, so let’s just stick to paper voting for now.
Is this all crazy? Should it be filed away in the department of bad ideas? Tell me why. And if you don’t mind, explain to me how what’s already happening in New York is less objectionable than my modest plan.