Geneva politics have been riveted by charges of unethical and potentially illegal behavior by Conseiller d’Etat Pierre Maudet. Should he leave office? Can the local branch of his political party, the PLR, force him to resign? After all, the head of the national party has already expressed her wish that he step down.
Why are we in this situation in the first place? Why wasn’t impeachment and removal from office included in the recent Geneva Constitution? For the moment, various solutions are being proposed to solve the quandary of what to do when a member of the cantonal executive is under investigation. An MCG parliamentarian and a retired Socialist deputy have proposed changing the law to deal with a situation wherein a member of the executive branch can be impeached and removed from office.
But the solutions of Messieurs Sormanni and Deneys are after the fact, after the problem of what to do about Pierre Maudet. Sormanni and Deneys are proposing to fix a problem that has arisen because the situation was not envisaged when the Geneva Constitution came into force in 2012.
Why wasn’t this situation envisaged when the Geneva Constitution was rewritten? Article 2 Section 4 of the United States Constitution sets out impeachment and removal from office procedures for the executive branch of government. With swirling news about the possibility of impeaching Donald Trump, it should not be necessary to remind people that Swiss federalism was significantly influenced by the original American Constitution of 1787. More recently, President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998. And one doesn’t have to go to the United States or history for a reference closer to Geneva; a procedure for impeachment and removal from office appears in the 2014 Constitution of Neuchatel.
(It should be noted that although procedures for impeachment and removal from office were written into law in the U.S. Constitution, the actual removal from office of a member of the executive must be voted by 2/3 of the Senate, a political act.)
What happened in the writing of the latest Geneva Constitution? Why wasn’t impeachment and removal from office included? Mr. Deneys wrote: “Impeachment. Removal from office. The writers of the Geneva Constitution did not think it “utile” (helpful, useful, necessary?) to take this into consideration in the new Geneva Constitution. Today, one must clearly regret this.”
Why didn’t they consider it “utile”? I have asked this question to several people. The answer is always: “Everyone understood that this situation would not happen.” Everyone assumed that someone elected to the highest office in the Canton would never get him or herself in a comprising situation worthy of removal from office? Much as the City of Geneva’s Conseil administratif did not think it necessary to have clear guidelines about expenditures, the writers of the Geneva Constitution could not envision anyone crossing an ethical red line.
No need for impeachment rules implies that those elected will have unimpeachable behavior. Is this reasonable? For someone from the borough of the Bronx, and a city and state with a history of elected officials being tried and convicted of bribery, corruption and sundry crimes, there is something wonderfully romantic about envisioning public servants only thinking of the public interest.
That era is coming to an end in Geneva. Whatever solution is agreed upon, and whatever the future of Pierre Maudet, politicians are going to be held accountable for their behavior as never before. Is that a good thing? Pragmatically, yes. But there is something admirable that the writers of the Geneva Constitution did not think it necessary to set out procedures for impeachment and removal from office, and something sad that that ideal will be lost.