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A Constitutional Coup?

June 29th, 2009 · 4 Comments

So, obviously it’s never a good sign for democracy when the president is bustled out of the country under military guard. But I’m nevertheless a bit perplexed about the univocal condemnation—and simliarly one-sided coverage—of the  ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. Without pretending to any expertise on the Honduran political scene, here’s what I’ve gathered to be the context: Zelaya was pushing for a national referendum on whether he should be able to seek reelection, though the constitution limits him to a single term due to end in January. The country’s Supreme Court declared this move illegal, and the congress recently passed legislation similarly barring any such plebiscite, but Zelaya was apparently undissauded. This weekend, under an order from the Supreme Court, the military spirited Zelaya off to Costa Rica. The line of succession was observed, and the president of the congress, a member of Zelaya’s own party, ascended to the presidency with the confirmation of the legislature.

Grant that this is a mess either way, that this is hardly an outcome that a liberal democrat should feel comfortable with, and that there are almost certainly aspects of this that I’m missing. Is it actually obvious that Zelaya is on the side of “democracy” here?  It sounds like he’s the one trying to circumvent the law to extend his own power, and that his removal had the backing of the other legitimate branches of government. That’s not to say I think the United States ought to support the coup—again, I don’t really understand the details of the situation, and I don’t know that it would be our affair in any case—but since we’ve been hearing a lot recently about the virtues of remaining netural on the internal power struggles of sovereign nations, a principle I think is generally a sound one, I’d think it behooves us to follow the same policy here.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Law



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike // Jun 29, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Yup. A year or so ago there were, now and then, people saying that they wouldn’t be surprised if Bush/Cheney used terrorism, war, etc. as an excuse to remain in power for a third term. Would congress ordering the National Guard or whatever to forcibly remove them have been a coup?

  • 2 southpaw // Jun 29, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Well, yes, Mike, perhaps it would be reasonable to escort the president out of the white house following impeachment and removal by our constitutional process, but that’s really as far as it goes. And don’t forget that Bush/Cheney didn’t actually do any of those things they were rumored to be plotting.

    Congress can’t go around issuing orders to the armed forces and spiriting other branches of government out of the country. It sounds like there is a legitimate mess in Honduras, so much so that there’s no analogous situation–to my knowledge–in the history of our constitution.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jun 29, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Again, based on a very cursory skim of some of the coverage on this, it seems there may be a provision in the Honduran constitution to the effect that an executive who attempts to exceed his constitutionally prescribed term automatically forfeits the office. If that’s right, it might put this kind of order within the court’s legitimate jurisdiction. Again, I don’t really know enough to have a firm view.

  • 4 southpaw // Jun 30, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    It’s an element of our constitution that isn’t well spelled out. Suppose Congress duly removes a president; what happens if he or she won’t go quietly?

    I suppose the answer, in this country, would be that you’d get a federal court to issue an order to the U.S. Marshals or something to remove the President from office. But could that order extend beyond removing the president from office to, say, incarceration or exile? Under our constitution, I’d argue it clearly could not; the proper scope of the order would be coextensive with congress’ power to impeach and remove.

    In the circumstance where a president overstayed his statutorily appointed term, again I think a court probably could order his ouster from office by officers of the court. Would it be able to order the 101st Airborne to fly the president to Bermuda or the 3rd Infantry Division to impose order in Washington? I’d say no.

    I have no particular expertise in Honduras, but my guess is that the Honduran constitution and legal system affords similarly limited powers in this situation.