Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Max Raskin had a regard for the rule of law, and for the U.S. Constitution from which it extended, that was so sincere, and so majestic in character, that young lawyers would linger in his chambers in the turbulent last days of the 1960s to feel the touchstone of an American experiment that seemed otherwise to be in flux. A juror, sitting for a trial over which Judge Raskin presided, was so inspired as to memorialize the jurist in a poem that began:
From high behind the judge’s bench,
His great stone face is stern of style,
And yet how wondrous to see
His eyes and lips light to smile.
How reassuring that we see
While justice must be cold in part,
It is administered by one
Who has a warm and tender heart.
Born in Latvia just after the turn of the last century, Max Raskin understood the Constitution as a bulwark against injustice and tyranny. It underpinned a system that, at its best, allowed the child of working-class Jewish immigrants to obtain a law degree before he was 25 and to win election as the city attorney of a great American metropolis before he was 30.
Raskin embraced the egalitarian sensibility of his friend and ally Milwaukee Mayor Dan Hoan, the long-serving socialist who once refused to greet the visiting king of Belgium because, Hoan said, "I stand for the common man; to hell with kings."
As Milwaukee's nationally recognized city attorney and an appointed and elected judge, Max Raskin nurtured a deep faith in the principle that America's promise would only be realized as "a nation of laws, not men." Something of that faith lives on in his great-nephew, Maryland Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin, who has emerged as an essential member of the House Judiciary Committee, which is now wrestling with the narrow issue of Attorney General William Barr’s rank lawlessness and the broader question of whether President Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
Prior to his 2016 election to the U.S. House, Jamie Raskin was a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law and one of the nation’s most distinguished commentators on the Constitution as a tool for checking and balancing errant executives. The congressman and I spoke the other day about presidential accountability. In particular, I asked him to explain how we should consider the issue of impeachment.
“It’s the people’s and the Congress’s final instrument of self-defense against a president who is trampling the rule of law and assuming the powers of a king,” replied Raskin. In a discussion of when and how to impeach that frequently echoed the language of his great-uncle from Milwaukee, the congressman explained:
"It has both legal and political dimensions. The legal aspect requires us to ask whether there have been high crimes and misdemeanors such as treason or bribery, which I take to mean grave offenses from on high of a public character against the democracy itself. The political part requires us to ask whether the public interest demands impeachment and conviction as a remedy to stop a pattern of misconduct that is contemptuous of the rule of law and our Constitution. If it were a purely legal judgment, it would have been assigned to the courts in Article III, but the founders rejected that idea and located it in Article I, with Congress.
"From the beginning of the administration, I’ve said impeachment should not be a fetish for anybody, but it should be a taboo for nobody. At this point in events, we have to be taking it very seriously.
"What people sometimes miss is that impeachment takes the question of holding presidents to account out of the paradigm of crime and punishment. The president is not punished by virtue of impeachment as he would be with a prosecution. He doesn’t go to jail. He may face prosecution separately, but this is about defending our Constitution by removing a president who has become an intolerable threat to the people and our form of government.
"There can be real risks attendant to impeachment, as when it acts like a partisan hit over low crimes and misdemeanors, which is what happened with Bill Clinton. But there are real risks attendant to not impeaching when a president is systematically thwarting the rule of law and destroying constitutional norms. If you read David Stewart’s book about Andrew Johnson, I think you will come away with the sense that Johnson was an egregious threat to the Constitution, to the rule of law, and to Reconstruction, and he absolutely should have been impeached, convicted, and removed. Johnson’s escape from this fate by a single vote in the Senate was a tragedy for America and especially African-Americans."
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. He wrote the foreword to the new book "The Constitution Demands It: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump" (Melville House). email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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