A Safeguard of the Republic

Early in his legal career, Cass Sunstein ’72 was fortunate to spend his clerkship with legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who once recounted an exchange he had with Prince Philip back when Justice Marshall was a civil rights lawyer. “Would you like to know what I think of lawyers?” Prince Philip queried, to which Marshall replied, “Would you like to know what I think of princes?”

That single anecdote, Cass said, not only encapsulates the relationship between England and the United States but also indicates the reason why the founding fathers established the process of impeachment when creating the structure of their new Republic.

Speaking to U.S. History students and other interested community members on the evening of November 2, 2017, Cass discussed the subject of his latest book, Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide. A prolific writer, accomplished legal scholar, and engaging speaker, Cass is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. Having served as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, he knows Washington politics well and has found that many people misunderstand the intended purpose of impeachment and what actions would justify its implementation.

Describing the Declaration of Independence as “our articles of impeachment” – for the colonists were impeaching the King – Cass said it was considered imperative at the Constitutional Convention that the right of impeachment be preserved to keep the executive power from being “above the law.” The key question was: On what grounds could impeachment occur? Ultimately, “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors” was the phrase written into the Constitution, as this could encompass a range of egregious offenses, including gross neglect of duty, interfering with civil liberties, or making war.

“If we are going to keep our Republic,” Cass concluded, “we need to know about it. Impeachment is our ultimate weapon of self-defense. It’s a reminder that we are citizens, not subjects. Whenever Americans strike a blow against some form of tyranny, large or small, we are honoring our nation’s highest ideals and those who were willing to live and die for them.”