Where Was the Constitution in the Impeachment Trial?

Staff writer Tylar Matsuo ’24 reacts to the AAS’ presidential impeachment hearing, expressing his frustration with the Senate’s seeming preoccupation with personal conflicts between senators at the expense of actually considering the body’s constitution.

The Association of Amherst Students’ (AAS’s) troubled semester came to a cataclysmic finale on Monday with the impeachment trial of President Sirus Wheaton. Although the arguments of Petitioner Ankit Sayed and President Wheaton proceeded largely without incident (with the exception of a single heckler interjecting at the end of Sayed’s opening remarks), the Senate’s deliberations were sufficiently unprincipled to render the trial an entertaining, yet Constitutionally bankrupt, dumpster fire. The deliberations opened with attacks on Sayed’s character more fitting for gossip circles than a legislative body, and did not improve much from there. Indeed, it seemed of more concern to the Senate that Sayed may not love the AAS as much as he professed or may somehow stand to benefit personally from an impeachment than the possibility that Wheaton may have grossly neglected his constitutional duties and committed malfeasance.

A particularly disturbing point of the deliberations were the remarks by one Senator about potential instances of sexual harassment unearthed during former AAS Vice-President Jaden Richards’ testimony. The Senator, in a confounding twist of logic, suggested by implication that the presence of potential sexual harassment should be a reason for acquittal rather than impeachment. They reasoned that Sayed was using claims of sexual harassment for “political” benefit solely on the grounds that he had failed to elaborate on them outside of Richards’ examination. That the allegations were unearthed in the midst of unscripted testimony, the contents of which Sayed might not have known beforehand, was not considered by the Senator. More disturbingly still, the Senator’s remarks were met with approving finger-snaps from other Senators and members of the audience — clearly the view that sexual harassment allegations should be kept firmly under wraps in lieu of overwhelming evidence is not uncommon in the AAS.

I do not mean to suggest that President Wheaton had indeed committed sexual harassment. Richards’ testimony referenced only a single half-remembered and possibly consensual incident that the Senate could have reasonably given little to no weight as admissible evidence, although it nonetheless merited more debate than the Senate conducted considering that they did not discuss the incident much further after these remarks. But to wield a sexual misconduct claim against the party bringing it is a deeply troubling act, and one the Senate should be ashamed to have engaged in.

The Constitution received little notice from the Senate. The refreshingly sane and poignant arguments of Senator Henry Pallesen ’25 were one of the few times that the enumerated Constitutional duties of the President — the very duties that the gross negligence claims of the impeachment case were centered around — received any direct reference by the Senate (while other senators had hinted at the duties, they minimized the issues at play by treating them as a nebulous body of norms; Senator Pallesen’s arguments differed in that he quoted the Constitution directly and explicitly referred to its mandates). It would likely surprise the vast majority of Senators to learn that Section B of the Executive Branch section of the AAS Constitution outlines seven duties that the president is obligated to perform. In this section, the Constitution demands that the president shall:

  1. Serve as the official representative and spokesperson of the AAS and the Student Body;
  2. Chair, and be a voting member of, the Executive Branch;
  3. Set the agenda for all Executive Branch meetings;
  4. Serve ex-officio on the College Council, the Trustee Advisory Committee on Student Life, and the Budgetary Committee;
  5. Have veto power over any action of the Senate;
  6. Call an all-campus meeting sponsored by the President of the College and the AAS at least once a year, assisted by the other members of the Executive Branch; and
  7. Present a speech at the first Senate meeting of each semester.

It was uncontested at trial that President Wheaton failed to chair Executive Branch meetings and did not set any of their agendas for at least the majority of the semester. It was further uncontested that Wheaton did not serve in his ex-officio role on the College Council, has yet to call an all-campus meeting, and failed to present a speech at the first Senate meeting of the semester. Only in the case of his role on the College Council did Wheaton offer anything approaching a convincing excuse for his failure to perform. Furthermore, Petitioner Sayed alleged that Wheaton failed to live up to his duty to serve as the representative and spokesperson of AAS and the Student Body, and that his use of veto power was not accompanied by purportedly necessary explanations of his decisions to the Senate, although Wheaton contested both points. Even disregarding the Presidential duty to call an all-campus meeting (as it can be performed at any point during the year), three Constitutional duties remained clearly neglected, one (College Council) was unperformed and potentially neglected, and a further two were either wholly unmet or poorly met, depending on whether one accepts Sayed or Wheaton’s arguments. Not so much as one of these Constitutional duties did Wheaton clearly perform to the extent required of him.

Yet this was evidently of little matter to the Senate. One Senator readily brushed aside the duty to chair Executive Branch meetings as “just two or three text messages a week” which could be easily performed by the Vice-President anyways. This Senator’s cavalier attitude towards the Vice-President’s workload aside, characterizing these responsibilities as a handful of text messages was a severe understatement of Wheaton’s unmet duties, particularly considering that the President is also required to set those meetings’ agendas, a fact overlooked by the Senate until Senator Pallesen’s remarks as the second-to-last speaker before voting commenced. Certain senators were also all-too-willing to accept the argument that the failure of previous presidents to present speeches at the Senate’s first semesterly meetings justified Wheaton’s failure to do the same. The Senate apparently accepted on its face Wheaton’s excuse for not attending College Council meetings — that he had been left off of email chains —  with little of the debate as to officials’ obligations to be proactive in performing their duties that it deserved. Combined, these individual shortcomings seemingly constituted widespread and gross negligence encompassing the entirety of Wheaton’s Section B Constitutional duties. Perhaps I am wrong — I will admit that I could be convinced otherwise in a well reasoned and factually grounded debate. But as it stands, the Senate’s ineptitude deprived the student body of such discourse, as Senators saw fit to treat Wheaton’s constitutional non-performances as nothing more than isolated aberrations to be cursorily dismissed.

Although I disagree with the Senate’s verdict, my primary issue and the focus of this article remains the disgraceful failure of the Senate to appropriately weigh the evidence before them in light of the Constitution’s mandates in their deliberations. Unfortunately, these failures extended to the Senate’s debates over the impact of their decision on the future of the AAS. The Senate was deeply concerned by the precedent that would be set by an impeachment of President Wheaton. They fretted that it would “lower the bar” too much, allowing future officials to be impeached for extremely mild infractions of the Constitution and bylaws. Given that the trial itself was the first (and hopefully last) of its kind, such debate was not wholly unmerited. Yet the Senate, for all its fears of bar-lowering, did not consider at all the precedent that their acquittal would set. The acquittal established that an official, who had indisputably failed to perform several of their Constitutional duties and arguably neglected every single one of them, had not committed gross negligence. And likewise the official, having badgered some of their peers to the point of resignation, was also innocent of malfeasance. But perhaps it is telling that the Senate sees nothing wrong with officials berating each other while ignoring their constitutional duties.

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