Op-Ed: Hold John Eastman accountable for Trump’s coup strategy
On Thursday, the State Bar of California announced that it was initiating disciplinary proceedings against Donald Trump’s lawyer John Eastman and seeking his disbarment for his role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This announcement comes 16 months after we led bipartisan efforts to file ethics complaints against Eastman in California.
By enabling the former president’s lawless attacks on the election, Eastman, a former law professor at Chapman University, violated his duty to uphold our laws. In the process, he endangered our democracy and helped provoke the crowd that later violently attacked the U.S. Capitol.
The bar’s disciplinary charges contain 11 counts, beginning with failure to support the Constitution and laws of the United States, and include making false and misleading statements that constitute acts of “moral turpitude, dishonesty, and corruption.”
The bar announced its investigation of Eastman in March 2022. It alleges that Eastman knew, or was grossly negligent in not knowing, that his actions were not supported by the law or the facts. Nevertheless, he engaged in a course of conduct “to plan, promote, execute, and assist” Trump in executing a strategy “to overturn the legitimate results of the election by obstructing the count of electoral votes of certain states.”
The complaints against Eastman involve his role as the lawyer-champion of Trump’s attempted coup strategy. He advocated to have then-Vice President Mike Pence reject or delay the certification of President Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021. Pence didn’t have the authority to reject or delay electoral votes and merely played a ceremonial role in presiding over the count.
Eastman wrote memos saying that Pence had the power to reject Biden’s certification or otherwise tamper with it. Luckily for us, on the advice of better lawyers, Pence refused to go along.
Eastman apparently knew he was giving unlawful advice. According to Pence, “Eastman had conceded to my general counsel that rejecting electoral votes was a bad idea and any attempt to do so would be quickly overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court. This guy didn’t even believe what he was telling the president.”
Accountability for Eastman is long overdue. It’s been more than two years since the scheme he devised with Trump and others led to the insurrection and invasion at the Capitol. Until he is disbarred or suspended, Eastman is free to practice law in the state of California.
Eastman’s conduct was well described by federal District Judge David O. Carter, who called the effort to overturn the election a “coup in search of a legal theory” — one Eastman helped provide. That was later followed by the House’s Jan. 6 committee referring Eastman, Trump and four others to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal investigation.
Eastman remains defiant in the face of the many investigations into his conduct. Just last week, he was quoted in an interview saying he was “not backing down” on the election fraud claims. Before the November 2022 midterms, he was actively advising “an audience of right-wing activists in New Mexico to aggressively file complaints and challenges at the polls.”
The news that the bar is now taking action is critically important in the defense of the rule of law and the integrity of the legal profession. The next step is for the State Bar Court to schedule disciplinary proceedings. If the State Bar Court judge recommends suspension or disbarment, Eastman could oppose it in the California Supreme Court, which must approve the recommendation.
Accountability is among the strongest tools we have to prevent another attack on our country. Swift action from the bar is critical to stopping Eastman from continuing to undermine both the legal profession and our democracy — and to warn other lawyers never to take this dangerous path.
Norm Eisen is executive chair of the States United Democracy Center, served as President Obama’s ethics czar and was special impeachment counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in 2019-20. Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, and is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy. Christine P. Sun is a senior vice president of the States United Democracy Center.
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