Impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump have commenced in the US House of Representatives - the Lower House of the US Congress, with the Senate being the Upper House - which together form the national legislature.
Impeachment is the process by which a legislative body levels charges against a government official. Impeachment does not, in itself, remove the official from office; it is the equivalent to an indictment in criminal law, and thus is only the statement of charges against the official.
In February 1868, the US House of Representatives resolved to impeach President Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the US - the first President to be impeached by the House. He was impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” President Johnson, a member of the Democratic Party before the Civil War was Lincoln’s 1864 running mate on the National Union ticket, which was supported by Republicans and War Democrats. The motion failed to receive the two-thirds needed to convict, in fact, one vote short of the two-thirds needed to convict.
The next US impeachment trial was in July 1974, when President Richard Nixon was impeached for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and Contempt of Congress. Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974 before a trial by the Senate.
On December 19, 1998, President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. Clinton was acquitted on both counts as neither received the necessary two-thirds majority vote of the senators present for conviction and removal from office.
Impeachment trials are not new to us, Sri Lankans. Over the years a number of attempts had been made to impeach judges of the Superior Courts and a President of the country as well.
In September 1991, President Premadasa faced an impeachment in Parliament led by his two formidable rivals in his United National Party, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake.
In 1983, Justices Wimalaratne and Colin Thome of the Supreme Court were brought before a Parliamentary Select Committee based on an allegation made by a person involved in a case heard by the Judges.
In 1984, impeachment proceedings were instituted against Neville Samarakoon, the then Chief Justice, on an allegation that he had made a public speech, in which he was critical of then President JR Jayewardene. A Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) chaired by Ranasinghe Premadasa first examined the allegation. The majority decision of this committee was unfavourable to the Chief Justice - with the decision split along party lines, (the majority opinion being members of the UNP). Subsequently a resolution requesting the removal of the Chief Justice was tabled in Parliament. But with the Chief Justice’s term ending, the matter was dropped.
In June 2001, the country witnessed the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva tabled in Parliament with the signatures of 77 MPs. However, because of the political instability that ensued in the following months, no further steps in the impeachment process were taken.
Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, was impeached by Parliament and then removed from office by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013. Bandaranayake was accused of a number of charges including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she has denied. Rajapaksa’s majority in Parliament however ensured the removal of the CJ. Bandaranayake was subsequently exonerated and reappointed to the position of Chief Justice
WHAT’S AT STAKE
A common thread runs through the impeachment processes ranging from the impeachment of Presidents, to the impeachment of Judges of the highest Courts in our country. The common thread which binds the impeachment processes is, that in both cases verdicts are governed by the majorities of the governing political parties at a given time or period. NOT on whether laws have been broken or charges against the plaintiffs are frivolous or proven.
In Sri Lanka, unfortunately a Judge of the Highest Court is found guilty - not by a judicial process, but by parliamentarians of a governing party having a majority in parliament. And in this country, parliamentarians vote along party lines. If a group of politicians/parliamentarians, banding themselves into a Select Committee and giving themselves punitive powers, is allowed to punish the Chief Justice of the country, other judges will be wary of delivering verdicts against an incumbent government. And, this is bad.
Because the people will begin to lose faith in the system of justice operating in the country. They will seek means of redress outside of that particular system. That alternative is too dreadful to contemplate, and our country has been through a near three-decade long war because of this very shortcoming.