The independent news organization of Duke University

Duke law professors sign letter used in House hearing that supported Trump's impeachment


Eight Duke Law professors signed a letter supporting impeaching President Donald Trump that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., entered into the Congressional Record before Wednesday’s historic House vote to impeach the president. 

The professors—Marin Levy, Lawrence Baxter, Sara Greene, Lisa Kern Griffin, Thomas Metzloff, Neil Siegel, Michael Tigar and Jonathan Wiener—joined more than 840 other legal scholars in arguing that Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to interfere in an American election for his own gain, undermining national security, and that he illegally obstructed the House. Pelosi submitted the letter to the record to serve as a “sad … national civics lesson,” during her opening statement, a spokesperson for the speaker confirmed to The Chronicle. 

The letter was published Dec. 6 by advocacy group Protect Democracy, less than two weeks before the House of Representatives voted along party lines to impeach Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is overwhelmingly unlikely to vote to convict Trump and remove him from office, which would require a 60-vote supermajority. 

Protect Democracy also published a list of more than 1,500 historians, including more than a dozen Duke faculty or staff, arguing that Trump violated the Constitution and should be impeached.

“There is so much noise around the impeachment proceedings that it can be easy to miss important signals. That over 800 law professors across the country would sign a letter supporting impeachment—and that over 1,500 historians would do the same—is truly momentous,” Levy said. “That is something for us all to take notice of.”

The letter argues that there is “overwhelming evidence” of impeachable conduct. 

Impeachment doesn’t require meeting a criminal standard, but rather a constitutional one, the letter states. Impeachment is necessary when a president "corrupts elections," which the authors argue Trump did. 

The letter first cites former US ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor's testimony that Trump withheld about $400 million in congressionally approved military aid to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into Ukranian gas company Burisma. Hunter Biden—the son of Joe Biden, former vice president and a leading 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate—once sat on the board of the company. 

The letter also cites European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony that Trump dangled a White House visit to Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky to pressure him to publicly announce investigations that would help Trump politically. It also references public statements from White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, along with Trump's asking for a "favor" in a July 25 phone call with Zelensky. 

Republicans have argued that anti-Trump animus, not facts, motivated Democrats to impeach Trump, an argument they repeated in Wednesday’s nearly 12-hour-long hearing.

Among the Duke professors, signing the letter was not a coordinated effort—Tigar, Levy and Baxter all told The Chronicle they didn’t speak with other Duke professors about signing. The other five professors either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Tigar, Levy and Baxter all argued that withholding the aid was an impeachable offense. 

Tigar, a professor emeritus who has represented members of Congress and a former Texas governor charged with bribery, called the tying of investigation announcements to the release of military aid "classic bribery." To come to his conclusion, Tigar said he leaned on 50 years of experience, listened to the evidence and discussed the issue extensively with his wife, also an attorney. 

Levy did not come to the decision that Trump committed impeachable offenses lightly and read a substantial amount of scholarship from impeachment experts, she said. Some disagree on what an impeachable offense is, but Levy felt the Founding Fathers were “particularly concerned with the prospect of foreign interference in our elections.”

“When you have substantial evidence that the president sought to pressure the government of another country to create a scandal in order to help his own reelection bid, I think the only appropriate remedy is impeachment,” she said. “This kind of conduct has to be sanctioned at the highest level, and simply relying upon the next election—when there have been attempts to interfere with that same election—is insufficient.”

She also said Trump obstructed justice by ordering officials to defy House subpoenas. 

For Baxter, Trump demanded an impeachable "quid pro quo" in his phone call with Zelensky. Given the circumstances, Biden’s son’s actions are irrelevant to impeachment, Baxter said.

He also argued that Trump obstructed Congress and justice “over and over again,” offenses he said are impeachable. 

Unlike Levy and Tigar, Baxter also pointed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election as evidence of criminal conduct that Trump “sponsored or encouraged.” 

Attorney General William Barr “whitewashed the report,” Baxter said, which made “gullible journalists” and the public at large accept the narrative that it exonerated Trump. 

The House opted not to include any instances of potential obstruction of justice from Mueller’s report in the articles of impeachment. 

“Having taught criminal law at the time, I know that any mobster prosecuted by Rudy Giuliani when he was prosecuting the mob in New York would be acting the same way and with the same excuses, and they would be found guilty of real and serious crimes,” Baxter said. “We have just forgotten or lowered our standards.”

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


Share and discuss “Duke law professors sign letter used in House hearing that supported Trump's impeachment” on social media.