Iran-Contra Hearings Contradict Rule of Law
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
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
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.