On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failure to turn over an unredacted version of the Mueller report. This happened hours after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege to keep the full version of the report, and any underlying evidence, from Congress. At a press conference after the House vote, committee Chairman Jerry Nadler declared that the nation now faces a “constitutional crisis” as a result of the conflict.
Meg Penrose, a constitutional law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, says a constitutional crisis is more of a political notion than a legal one. She says the term has been “thrown around” for 10 or 12 years, as political actors seek to bolster their arguments.
“These checks and balances that the founders wrote into the Constitution ensure that we don’t arrive at a constitutional crisis,” Penrose says.
The closest Penrose says the U.S. has come to a crisis goes back to the 19th century, when, in 1841, President William Henry Harrison died in office. There was no plan for who would succeed him, since today’s standard of promoting the vice president didn’t yet exist.
“That eventually led to the 25th Amendment,” Penrose says.
Also, in 1861, Southern states seceded from the Union, leading to the Civil War.
“That was a constitutional crisis because there was nothing in the Constitution that told us what to do if states leave the Union,” Penrose says.
In the current standoff between Congress and the president, Penrose says legislators have two options: impeach the president or go to court. But what if the president loses in court, and refuses to abide by a ruling that goes against him?
“There’s no direction in the Constitution,” Penrose says. “And I think that’s what makes it such a durable document: it’s got these vague terms and these powers that are broadly distributed.”
Penrose says Congress could use its power to impeach if the president defied a court ruling.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.