What If A Citizens’ Assembly Decided Trump’s Second Impeachment?

(Written before President Trump’s second impeachment trial on January 18, 2021)

The U.S. House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, but the Senate will not conduct its trial until after Trump has left office.

The difference between political and deliberative decision-making is that one is based on winning the next election and the other is based on seeking the truth. Professional politicians do not deliberate. They calculate. With each decision, the underlying consideration is the impact it will have on votes and donations.

Republican Senators will consider convicting Trump, but most are afraid, not only of Trump supporters hurting their chances in the next election, but of Trump supporters hurting them physically. Senator Lindsay Graham briefly broke with Trump, declaring that “enough is enough.” But he was soon advising the President again after being threatened by angry Trump supporters at an airport.

Few politicians have the integrity or courage of Justin Amash, the lone Republican congressman who voted to impeach President Trump in 2017, knowingly sacrificing his seat in Congress. Or the ten Republican representatives who voted for a second Trump impeachment, with Liz Cheney boldly stating that Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”

While some of his opponents think Trump should be tried, convicted and banned from holding federal office in the future, others argue that a failure to convict him in the Senate will strengthen him politically and still others claim that if he’s out of office the process is not legal.

I’d like to suggest a novel resolution. What if we let “the people” decide?

What if during the first 100 days of the Biden administration, while Congress addresses other urgent issues, the Senate voluntarily delegates its authority to a nonpartisan national citizens’ assembly that will consider the issues of the Trump impeachment and recommend actions based on balanced information and thoughtful deliberation.

Irish Citizens’ Assembly

I am especially inspired by the nonpartisan Irish Citizens’ Assembly that has been meeting since 2016 on controversial issues like abortion and climate change.

Ireland chose 99 delegates to its Citizens’ Assembly by random lottery — a process known as sortition — from among the Irish citizenry. They meet for one weekend a month for several months to recommend legislation on politically charged issues that intimidate legislators in a partisan political climate. Because the participants are selected to the assembly by sortition, not by competitive election, they are free to deliberate, achieve reasonable compromises and vote anonymously.

In the case of the abortion issue, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended the repeal of the Irish Constitutional language that prohibited abortion and recommended new legislation which regulates abortion. The Irish legislature had previously agreed to translate anything the Assembly recommended into legislation that was ultimately approved in a 2018 referendum by two-thirds of the Irish voters.

What if our hopelessly polarized U.S. Senators agreed to delegate their decision on the impeachment of President Donald Trump to a 538-member citizens’ assembly, equivalent to the membership of the Electoral College, and to follow its recommendations. With one delegate selected randomly from the voting rolls of each congressional district, two from each state and three from the District of Columbia, each delegate would be free from the partisan pressure that constrains elected politicians.

The Impeachment Assembly would make recommendations on whether Donald Trump should be:
  • censured rather than convicted for his role in inciting his supporters to storm the Congress,
  • convicted of the Impeachment charges approved by the House of Representatives,
  • barred from holding any future federal office,
  • not be convicted of the Impeachment charges.

Senators would voluntarily agree, in advance, to delegate their authority to the citizenry and to enact the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.

Those Senators who refuse should be asked to consider the question: Why would you not trust a representative group of Americans, in an informed setting, to deliberate and provide a just decision?

Every day we trust those same citizens, selected by lottery, to serve on juries and to decide whether to imprison their fellow citizens or put them to death.

Can they not be trusted with the fate of a President?

Are they to be trusted less than politically vulnerable Senators who make most of their decisions based on what will help them win their next election?

Deliberative Polling

One of the best models for conducting citizens’ assemblies is Deliberative Polling developed by James Fishkin at Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy:

A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

The votes of each individual delegate remain confidential, allowing each citizen to vote his or her conscience, without fear of reprisal. When questioned whether regular citizens were capable of making sound decisions on complex and technical issues, Professor Fishkin responded:

The public is very smart if you give it a chance. If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70 percent change their minds in the process.

Three decades of Deliberative Polling, with more than 112 citizen assemblies in 29 countries, demonstrate conclusively that large groups of ordinary people can make thoughtful decisions on complex issues. From closing segregated Roma schools in Bulgaria to health care planning in Italy, Fishkin’s approach been used to decide challenging issues.

At his most recent Deliberative Poll, in September, 2019, Fishkin assembled a representative group of 526 American citizens — exactly the kind of group that would deliberate about impeachment. The assembly discussed issues related to immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. The delegates made dramatic shifts in opinion. The most polarizing proposals from either the right or the left generally lost support, while the more centrist proposals gained support. Differences in opinion between citizens were reduced and their mutual understanding improved.

Most notable is the respect and civility shown by assembly participants, especially when compared to the behavior of professional politicians and their partisan supporters. As Irish Citizens’ Assembly delegate John Long noted, “Unlike some of the debates that have taken place in referenda in the past in Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly was very respectful and very congenial to everybody’s opinion.”

The Assembly was a breakthrough moment, not just for Ireland, but as an example for the rest of the world. Watch this remarkable 17-minute film, When Citizens Assemble (Film on YouTube), to hear directly from a truck driver, a self-employed mother of three and other interviewees who make us realize that, under the right circumstances, groups of ordinary people can make as good or better decisions than elected politicians on even the most controversial issues.

So why not let us, the people of the United States of America, deliberate and recommend the appropriate response to the second impeachment of President Donald J. Trump?

(Visit buildinganewreality.com for more posts on citizens’ assemblies and other efforts to achieve “democracy in everyday life.”)

8 Responses

  1. *** A much ignored example of sortition is a proposal by Pierre Leroux during the 1848 revolution (in Projet de constitution démocratique et sociale, Paris, 1848). Leroux did propose use of sortition for high criminal judicial power. His draft of constitution would have establish an allotted court to judge the representatives accused for their political functions (corruption, treason, …), and crimes against the State. This “jury national” was to be formed by 3 allotted citizens by department, therefore 258 jurors; and more jurors from the colonies (the “old” colonies which are now French “overseas departments” and where the 1848 revolution converted slaves into citizens); up to no more than 300 jurors.
    *** This proposal was forgotten, and I don’t know of a similar institution in any country (If somebody knows, please let’s us know).
    *** The turning down of the idea of “national jury” is especially significant for the rejection of lot about political decisions. Such a national judicial jury was a less “strange” and more practical idea than a legislative jury because it could be seen as an extrapolation of the traditional judicial jury (but with strong political impact); and because it could be convened for a short time – for a specific impeachment, for instance.

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  2. *** If we stick to the dictum “doubt must benefit the accused”, we must be ”sure” that any conviction may not “reasonably’ attributed to (bad) luck. That means a high minimum of votes for conviction. All the more so as, for a Trump-like impeachment, many citizens would suddenly immerse themselves in statistics.
    *** We could fear than high minimum levels, in a highly politically divided country, could give too easily impunity. As polarization is a by-product of electoral systems, especially bipartisan ones – Florida referenda demonstrate that it is not always deep – “high” judicial juries could be a problem in a country with such electoral politics. A legislative jury might have much less polarization than the electoral body, but judging a statesperson after a very divisive election would have much lesser chances of avoiding polarization.
    *** An hybrid system with electoral politics and allotted “high” criminal jury may work only if the electoral politics field is not very polarized – therefore I doubt the Trump impeachment is a good case.

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  3. Given that the outcome of the trial in the Senate was preordained by party politics, a trial by jury – polarisation and all – would at least have had the merit that the jurors would not be direct associates and allies of the accused. Even hardened Trumpkins might have had their minds changed by evidence, since their jobs wouldn’t have relied on their finding him innocent.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with André, that any jury process in a society deeply polarized by electoral politics is problematic. Many jurors will pre-judge, and with confirmation bias pick and choose which “facts” to believe. For mini-publics to function well (with members exercising independent judgment) they need to be untainted by high stakes elections also existing. Mini-publics can function best when dealing with issues that elected politicians don’t touch.

    A certainly unacceptable, but excellent, workaround is to follow the model of criminal juries, in which people who are already familiar with the case, or know about the participants are excluded from the jury. The BEST way to do this is to have a jury made up of citizens from other countries who have no opinions about the person impeached. This could be an arm of the World Court, or the UN that would empanel a large jury from around the globe when petitioned by any government seeking an impartial jury for an impeachment trial.

    This idea of using a jury from OUTSIDE the jurisdiction could also be used in anti-corruption challenges in places like Mexico, where the family members of jurors are at risk if the police chief in the jurisdiction is put on trial, etc. The jury might be made up of citizens from distant jurisdictions (still within the country), and names kept secret.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. *** Bouricius’ idea of a “JURY FROM OUTSIDE” has many difficulties.
    *** Specially when the crime is not something with universal value. Judging a statesman not complying with polyarchic political laws, i.e a political crime, would be strange if the foreign judges are supporters of absolute monarchy, theocracy, or dêmokratia. Judging Trump for his policy about the Yemen war could theoretically be for me a relevant idea, because the blood here could be construed as a universal humanity issue.
    *** If US citizens recruit foreign theocrats to condemn a US statesperson because he did “unlawful things” against the US system, they will have to help condemn those who do “unlawful things” against the local theocracy.
    *** Second. An outside jury asked to intervene in a highly polarized society would easily be seen as the help of foreigners to an internal faction, that would be easily branded as traitors. With the result of polarizing further the society, and maybe diverting the citizens of issues affecting the lives of many – which is already the result of the “ordinary” electoral circus.

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  6. Can participatory impeachment defend democracy from partisan justice?

    By Rikki Dean, Goethe University Frankfurt

    https://deliberativehub.wordpress.com/2021/02/19/can-participatory-impeachment-defend-democracy-from-partisan-justice/

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Andre: > Such a national judicial jury was a less “strange” and more practical idea than a legislative jury because it could be seen as an extrapolation of the traditional judicial jury (but with strong political impact); and because it could be convened for a short time – for a specific impeachment, for instance.

    A legislative jury can also be convened for a short time to decide something specific. I would say that this should always be the case for legislative juries, and is perhaps part of the definition of a “legislative jury.”

    I appreciate that extrapolating from a trial jury to an impeachment jury is probably less of an extrapolation than extrapolating from a trial jury to a legislative jury. However, I think that extrapolating from a trial jury to a legislative jury is nevertheless a good way to talk about legislative juries.

    I am glad to see people talking about impeachment juries and other possible oversight juries for elected politicians. I think this idea may publishable in popular publications such as a newspaper, though in the context of short attention spans in the media, the impeachment trial is perhaps already yesterday’s news.

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  8. About the idea of an allotted High Jury, we may remember what said Aristotle (Constitution of Athens, 9, 1). Retracing the history of the Athenian democracy he saw its seeds in Solon’s supposed reform, which ultimately awarded judicial power to allotted popular juries: “the People (dêmos), in fact, being the master of the token [used for voting in court] becomes the master of the political system”.

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