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Iran-Contra Hearings Contradict Rule of Law

Synopsis: Pat criticizes congressional tactics in hearings regarding the Iran contras. Such hearings constitute illegal Bills of Attainment on the part of Congress and deny those questioned their rights to basic legal processes. Such charges belong in the courts, not in a joint Senate-House committee. No branch of government should impinge on the constitutionally designated responsibilities of another. He calls for Congress to amend its ways.

National Press Club, July 24, 1987

Ladies and gentlemen, the philosopher, George Santayana said something that I am sure is almost a cliché today, but it still has truth, that those who would fail to heed the lesson of history are doomed to live it again, and so I want to go back a little bit in history to bring us up to date, to focus some historic perspective on what is happening on Capitol Hill at the so-called Iran-Contra hearings.

A Lesson from History

If you would, go back with me now to February 1, 1943. A gentleman named Congressman Martin Dies, Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, during a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, named 39 individual government employees as being "radical bureaucrats and affiliates of Communist organizations." Among those named were Robert Morss Lovett, Goodwin Watson, and William E. Dodd, Jr.

Congressman Dies suggested that the Appropriations Committee "weigh the evidence and take steps to dismiss these people from federal service." Sometime later, the House of Representatives passed a Resolution authorizing the Appropriations Committee, acting through a special subcommittee, to examine any and all allegations and charges that certain persons in the employ of several executive departments and other executive agencies are unfit to continue in such employment by reason of membership in subversive organizations. After hearing testimony and examining witnesses, the committee concluded that these men had engaged in subversive activity and were, therefore, unfit to remain in government service.

Although the three continued working in their several departments, there was no appropriation made for their salary. As a result, the three brought suit against the United States in a case designated Lovett vs. The United States, which wound its way from the court of claims all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. The court ruled, very interestingly, in the Lovett vs. United States case that the proceedings against these people in the appropriations subcommittee and in the Congress were unconstitutional because they were, in fact, a Bill of Attainder forbidden by the United States Constitution. The Court ruled as follows, and I am quoting directly now from the majority decision, "Legislative acts, no matter what their form, that apply either to named individuals or to easily ascertainable members of a group in such a way as to inflict punishment on them without judicial trial are Bills of Attainder and are prohibited by the U. S. Constitution."

Danger in Legislative Punishment

Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Black made the following point, and again I quote, "Those who wrote our Constitution knew the danger inherent in special legislative acts which take away the life, liberty and property of named persons because the legislature thinks them guilty of conduct which deserves punishment. They intended to safeguard the people of this country from punishment without trial by duly constituted courts."

Ladies and Gentlemen, by this criteria, the present Iran-Contra joint hearings against named members of the executive branch of government are clearly unconstitutional Bills of Attainder. They serve no valid legislative purpose, they have trampled on the constitutional rights of those brought before them, and they are a usurpation of the judicial function of the government of the United States. The purpose of the Bill of Attainder is to stigmatize individuals and destroy their reputation so that they may never be able to hold public office or be respected in their community. Certainly, the lectures, the harangues, and the public chastisement of Col. Oliver North or Admiral Poindexter before the national television audiences is equal to a written bill brought against them.

Elements of the Bills of Attainder

The following, I think, are indicative of some of the elements of Bills of Attainder, and I'll just give you a few of them:

1) Both men were publicly accused of common law sedition and treason against the Constitution of the United States.

2) They were repeatedly accused of illegal, unethical and disreputable acts, including violation of their military oaths, which is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

3) The committee made various conclusory assertions of criminal guilt, some of them open accusations, some by innuendo.

4) The machinery of the committee was oppressive, and it was lacking in the customary judicial safeguards that attend a trial.

5) Congress subjected the victims, if you will, to the arbitrary punishment of a trial and public humiliation which, in itself, is a preemption of the statutory protection of the courts and a denial of due process of law. Clearly, the hearings have not been impartial but were the machinery of a rival political party seeking to vitiate another party which now occupies the Executive Branch of government.

A Popular President Targeted

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, it takes little sophistication to realize that the motive for the Iran-Contra hearings was an attempt to weaken a popular Republican president and to provide support for a potential impeachment against him, but as we realize, even impeachment proceedings by a joint Senate-House Committee is unconstitutional, and the reason for this is because the Constitution clearly requires that a Bill of Impeachment be drawn in the House of Representatives, and that the sole judge of the merits of this Bill of Impeachment is the United States Senate. For that reason, collaboration between the two houses in a joint Senate-House Committee would, therefore, in my estimation, be constitutionally improper.

As sort of an aside, my staff has informed me of this, and I believe it is accurate, it is instructive to note that Mr. Arthur Liman, who is the chief counsel of the Senate Subcommittee, wrote an Honors Thesis for a baccalaureate degree when he was attending Harvard University which decried the excesses of the Dies and the McCarthy committees during the 40s and 50s. Liman deplored the misuse of congressional power to expose and pillory witnesses before its committees in order to force the Executive Branch to change its policies, and yet Mr. Liman today is willing to serve as lead counsel in disregard of the constitutional limits that he held so dearly when he was a student at Harvard. Those accused in 1980, however, are so-called "right wing zealots" instead of "misunderstood liberals" of the 40s and 50s.

Restore Balance of Power

The Constitution, however, is for everyone, not just for Congress' favorite sons and daughters at any given moment of our political history. By accusing members of the National Security Council, Congress itself is actually violating the very Constitution that it purports to uphold. This is not only hypocritical, in my estimation, but a serious breach of the office of trust and duty that it holds to the American people, and I believe all of us, whether press or public, owe this nation a duty to speak out with the same clarity in 1987 as many members of the press spoke out with equal clarity in the 1950's against similar abuse of Congressional powers. We must return, it seems like to me, to a government under a Constitution which is respected by all branches of government ...that the Legislature not infringe on the power given to the courts, the Executive not infringe on the power given to the Legislature or the courts, and the courts, in turn, not infringe on the powers given to the Legislature and the Chief Executive.

If we operate under a rule of law rather than, sometimes, the rule of men or partisan politics, it will bode well for the future of this country, but if we allow the machinery of government and the vast agencies thereof to become tools of oppressive partisanship, then we all, whether we are Republicans or whether we are Democrats, will be the losers for it. So, I believe that, although undoubtedly some interesting facts have come to light in these hearings, they were conducted in an improper fashion and in the wrong forum, and I call on Congress to amend its ways, that the American people might have a higher regard and to restore the trust that Congress deserves from the people of the United States of America.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
—Philippians 4:13

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