Chris Christie, Fort Lee, George Washington Bridge, Henry S. Johnston, Illinois, Impeachment, John C. Walton, New Jersey, O. O. Hammonds, Oklahoma, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Rod Blagojevich
If Christie Knew
The United States House of Representatives has exercised its constitutional power to impeach federal officials just 19 times in the history of the Republic. The United States Senate has convicted and removed just eight of those officials – although four others resigned their offices. Almost all federal impeachments and convictions have involved federal judges – 15 of 19 impeachments, and all eight convictions and removals.
Impeachment in the states has a different history – most state impeachments and convictions have involved governors. State legislators have voted to impeach state officials 23 times, 15 of which have resulted in conviction and removal. Eight of those removals have been governors.
Illinois and Oklahoma have two of the odder impeachment records. In Illinois in 2009, Governor Rod Blagojevich became, as far as I can tell, the only person in American history to be impeached twice.
Blagojevich was arrested on December 9, 2008, on federal corruption charges growing out of his attempt to auction off appointment to fill President Obama’s former Senate seat. Following an investigation, the Illinois House of Representatives voted to impeach the governor on January 9, 2009, but the legislative session expired before the Senate could try the governor. So the House re-impeached Blagojevich on January 14, 2009. The Illinois Senate convicted Blagojevich and removed him from office on January 29, 2009.
Oklahoma impeached and removed two governors in the same decade. First was John C. Walton in 1923. Walton’s crime was the imposition of martial law and suspension of habeas corpus, in violation of the state constitution. Walton’s motives seem to have been sound – his actions were part of a crack-down on the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Tulsa race riots. Then in 1929, Henry S. Johnston earned impeachment and conviction by allowing too much power to his personal secretary, one Mrs. O. O. Hammonds. The legislature was in such a hurry to take Governor Johnston out that they convened in violation of state constitutional requirements. The session was enjoined by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, but legislators tried to convene anyway, and were only stopped by the state National Guard – which the governor conveniently commanded. The whole affair made the governor quite popular, but his opponents got the last laugh. Herbert Hoover swept Republicans into the Oklahoma legislature in 1928, and they impeached and convicted the Democrat Johnston for “incompetence.”
The United States Constitution famously provides for impeachment of executive officials who commit “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Most state constitutions include similar provisions. New Jersey’s constitution, in particular, provides for impeachment of executive officials “for misdemeanor committed during their respective continuance in office.”
For reasons as yet unproved, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s staff and his appointees in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey arranged for two lanes on the access ramp from the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, to the George Washington Bridge, to be diverted from local access to highway access. The resulting slow-down of local access to the bridge backed up traffic and gridlocked the entire town during the week that included the first day of school and the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
It is now known that Governor Christie’s deputy chief-of-staff, his press secretary, and his 2013 re-election campaign manager participated in a cover-up of the shut-down and the reasons for it. Also participating were Christie appointees at the Port Authority, which is responsible for running the bridge.
As yet, there is no evidence that Governor Christie was aware of the plan to create the traffic jams, or of the cover-up that followed. Christie maintains that he was a victim of his own staff’s lies to him – that he convened a staff meeting at which he asked if anyone had been involved, and that no one stepped forward.
The most popular explanation for the episode is that Christie’s staff, and maybe Christie himself, imposed the traffic jams in retaliation for the failure of the Democratic Fort Lee mayor to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. Allegations that Christie and his staff have used their public office to bully and threaten other municipal officials have followed. The New Jersey legislature is investigating, as is the United States Attorney for New Jersey, who happens to be Chris Christie’s successor in that position.
The commentariat is fascinated by the impact of the scandal on Christie’s presidential chances in 2016. I never thought Christie had any real chance in the Tea Party-dominated Republican primaries. So it’s a moot point to observe that, even if Christie himself knew nothing of the incident or the cover-up, his appointment of officials capable of such rank abuse of power ought to disqualify him from the presidency.
What’s really interesting isn’t Christie’s presidential ambitions, but his chances of becoming the ninth state governor in American history to be impeached and removed from office. Impeachment in New Jersey requires a majority vote of the state assembly; conviction requires 27 votes in the 40-member senate.
New Jersey is a blue state. President Obama carried the state by 18 points in 2012. New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican Senator since 1972, and hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Democrats hold exactly 60 percent of the seats in both houses of the current New Jersey legislature: 24 – 16 in the Senate, and 48-32 in the Assembly.
If the continuing investigations produce credible evidence that Governor Christie knew about the plan to create the traffic jams, or about the cover-up after the fact, Christie will certainly be impeached by majority vote in the assembly. Democrats in the Senate would need just three Republicans to convict and remove Chris Christie from the governorship.