U.S. President Donald Trump shown in a file photo from 2018. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The Star Chamber was an invention of the British. The practice, which was abolished by Parliament in the 1640s, provided that an individual could be held in jail, tortured, if necessary, for an indeterminable length of time, then brought in secret before a panel of their imprisoners, found guilty, and sentenced to what they deemed to be an appropriate punishment.
When it is written that the English abolished it, we should add in England, yes, but not in the American colonies. In fact, a case could be made that if you wish to know the cause that generated the Bill of Rights, it was the star-chamber treatment of colonial citizens that gave its birth.
On the federal level, the 5th Amendment to the Constitution provides that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty ,or property without due process of law.” “No person” means everyone from the most common criminal to the past president of the United States. This means that one cannot be convicted of a crime until their guilt has been established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Not only that, but one accused is deemed innocent until guilt has been established to this standard.
A person has a right to counsel, the right to call witnesses on their own behalf and compel their attendance, cross examine witnesses, and even refuse to testify without an inference implied by a refusal to do so. Furthermore, the proceeding must be held in public.
I write this because I know it to be necessary that we do not, in haste to convict Donald J. Trump, tear up the very document that guarantees our own fundamental rights. We are already seeing yellow journalism that would have William Randolph Hearst spin in his grave. TV commentators and talk show hosts are pontificating that the former president’s defenses are a sham, that proof of guilt is overwhelming, and that he will get a long prison sentence even before the trial commences.
It is difficult, left or right, to find an editorial writer that can render a modest opinion that maybe, just maybe, we ought to slow down this freight train to conviction. Likewise, Vice President-to-be Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and our congressional delegation do not help calm the process by proclaiming this investigation is simply a witch hunt.
However, from the conservative perception, there are troubling issues that surround these proceedings. Why, they ask, is not President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, or former Vice President Mike Pence subject to criminal prosecution as well? True these three turned in their documents or were subject to a lengthily congressional hearing, but to the Trump supporter, this is a distinction without a difference. The three ignored the safeguards to protect classified information.
But to me, the more troubling aspect of our current situation is that we are seeing the likely political opponent of Biden in the next fall election being prosecuted criminally before the election. Yes, I know there is an independent special prosecutor appointed by the attorney general. But that attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president. To the Republicans here, 40% of whom still feel the last presidential election was rigged, when told this is not a conflict of interest, find that hard to believe.
There is an obvious solution here and in proposing it, I admit I feel a little like Daniel Webster arguing for farmer Stone, who had promised to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for seven years of good crops. Webster had to argue with a jury selected by the devil himself. Here I am going to catch hell from both sides. I know strong feelings exist among many, but the simple answer is that, until Donald Trump is either eliminated from contention for the Republican nomination for president or is defeated in the general election, prosecution should be held in forbearance.
Given the complexities of this case, it is doubtful that such a trial could take place much sooner anyway. The election then can be determinative and the public in some form can have input on who is our next commander in chief. If Trump is elected, he will surely select different people to man the Justice Department. In the alternative, a fair trial can be held in a much calmer and more reflective atmosphere.
Two points to remember: Our elections must be above question and the current situation and immediate prosecution undermines that standard. Secondly, recall Sir Thomas More’s admonition that if we tear down the laws that protect us from the devil, there is nothing left to protect us when he turns on us. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights must be respected.
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