Bybee’s Torture Memo: Time to Impeach?

It’s time to schedule preliminary impeachment proceedings against federal judge and torture-memo author Jay Bybee.

Amidst the uproar over the torture memos, it’s important not to lose sight of a crucial fact: its responsible author, Jay S. Bybee, is now a federal appeals court judge.

Thus, apart from any issue of criminal prosecution, he can be impeached by the House and removed by the Senate.

This would be appropriate. Having judges declare that torture is legal does not serve as a good precedent. Perhaps more significantly, the memo’s legal analysis was so shockingly incompetent that Bybee’s successor, Jack Goldsmith, withdrew it, noting subsequently that he was appalled by its incompetence.

What’s more, DOJ’s Office of Professional Reponsibility might find that by taking orders from the White House to reach a preordained legal conclusion, Bybee violated professional ethics rules.

Regardless of the Obama Administration’s decision on prosecution, then, impeachment hearings and a Senate trial for Bybee would signal a necessary reassertion of Congresional authority and would ensure at least some minimal accountability.

Alas, emphasis there should be on the “minimal.” I would hope that the House would impeach, but Senate Republicans would clearly vote no to prevent removal.

I don’t know how the politics work on this. The Beltway media will clearly spin this as the Democrats obsessed with the past and not concerned about the supposedly grave national security implications. On the other hand, Republicans would be forced to defend an incompetent, ethically-challenged judge.

But maybe, given how unclear the politics are, it might be best to do, you know, the right thing. John Conyers should start scheduling preliminary hearings right away.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.