We were pleased to see the article ``US judge under fire defends his style, record,'' Dec. 3, concerning possible impeachment proceedings against federal judge Alcee Hastings. It is extremely important for the press to cover the United States judicial system.
Overall this article is competently written. But in it Judge Hastings's attorney suggests that to institute impeachment proceedings against Judge Hastings after his acquittal of criminal charges would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutional prohibition of double jeopardy.
Legally, it is not double jeopardy to bring noncriminal charges against an individual acquitted of similar charges in a criminal trial.
Several good reasons for this exist. First, in a criminal proceeding the charges must be proved by the very highest standard of proof - that is, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - because imprisonment or even capital punishment may be imposed. This extremely high standard of proof is considered inappropriate in ordinary civil trials and in judicial disciplinary proceedings.
In fact, it has been held in many cases that a prior criminal acquittal does not amount to double jeopardy in a later judicial disciplinary proceeding.
Also, though there may be some overlap between the legal issues in a criminal trial and an impeachment proceeding, there also may be significant differences.
For example, in his criminal trial Mr. Hastings was acquitted of conspiracy to accept a bribe; now, however, he is charged with multiple counts of perjury - charges on which he was never tried.
Most important, the underlying goals of a criminal trial and impeachment are quite different. In the former the question is whether a defendant has committed a crime; in the latter the question is not whether a defendant has committed a crime at all but rather his fitness to serve in the high office of federal judge.
A person's acquittal of a crime is not tantamount to his being fit to serve as a judge. In such a situation we believe that bringing impeachment proceedings against a judge is not double jeopardy, in letter or in spirit.
We hope that these comments are useful, and we look forward to your continued excellent coverage of the judicial system. Jeffrey M. Shaman Director Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations American Judicature Society Chicago Letters are welcome. Only a selection can be published, subject to condensation, and none acknowledged. Please address them to ``Readers Write.''