Reporting from Washington — The Senate voted Wednesday to convict U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. of Louisiana on corruption and perjury charges, overcoming objections that it was ignoring precedent that protected officeholders from overzealous political prosecution.
With its votes, the Senate acted for only the eighth time in U.S. history to remove a federal judge through impeachment. It was also the first Senate impeachment trial since President Clinton stood accused of obstruction of justice and perjury in 1999.
Clinton appointed Porteous to the District Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana in 1994.
Among the charges was that Porteous lied to the Senate and to the FBI during his appointment process. The House of Representatives, acting as the prosecutors in the impeachment process, also alleged that Porteous demonstrated "a level of moral depravity and bad judgment … completely incompatible with the responsibilities of a judge," saying he accepted gifts from lawyers and friends to pay gambling debts.
Porteous never denied many of the facts in the case. His defense was based in part on the notion that officials could not be impeached for conduct that occurred prior to their attaining the office from which they would be removed. The second article of impeachment is based on the claim that Porteous, as a state judge, "maintained a corrupt relationship" with a local bail bondsman.
"In the history of this republic, no one has ever been removed from office on the basis of pre-federal conduct," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who led Porteous' defense.
Arguing on the Senate floor Tuesday, Turley said that convicting Porteous would enable future Congresses "to dredge up any pre-federal conduct to strip the bench of unpopular judges, or to remove other federal officials" at whim.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D- Burbank), who led the team of House impeachment managers, countered that it was important for the Senate to establish that "if you committed serious misconduct and you're nominated for a high office, it's not enough to conceal that conduct from the Senate," particularly when a lifetime appointment is at stake.
The votes on the four articles of impeachment, one of which was a unanimous 96 to 0, remove Porteous from the bench.
"That shows the extent to which everyone made an independent judgment and took their responsibilities very seriously," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chaired the special Senate Impeachment Committee, said after the proceedings.
Though Congress found Porteous guilty, he does not currently face criminal prosecution. An eight-year investigation by the Justice Department and FBI ended in 2007 without an indictment, but spurred a formal complaint of judicial misconduct that led to the House being asked to consider impeachment in 2008.