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What is a Bill of Address?

How is it different from an impeachment?

The Bill of Address

The Massachusetts Constitution, written by John Adams in 1780, anticipated that courts could get out of control, that judicial tyranny could happen. In fact, both Adams and Jefferson identified the judiciary as the biggest threat to a democracy.

Thus, the "checks and balances" written into our constitution already include the means for dealing with situation we are in: What to do when Supreme Judicial Court justices ignore the law or twist it to impose their own views on the citizens?

The constitutional solution is not to amend the constitution whenever the judiciary becomes despotic. (That would surely lead to anarchy.) The intended remedy is to remove judges from office who violate their oath and oppress the people.

John Adams purposely put into the Massachusetts Constitution the procedure known as a bill of address. The Legislature can remove renegade judges from office by a simple majority in both legislative chambers, with the subsequent agreement of the governor and governor's council. (Many other states have adopted similar procedures in their constitutions.)  The bill of address procedure has in fact been used several times throughout the history of the Commonwealth. 

The ideas behind it are straightforward. Article 8 of the Declaration of Rights sets the theme used throughout the Constitution. It uses the term "oppressors" and states the right of the people to remove their public officials:

"In order to prevent those, who are vested with authority, from becoming oppressors, the people have a right, at such periods and in such manner as they shall establish by their frame of government, to cause their public officers to return to private life; and to fill up vacant places by certain and regular elections and appointments."

Article 29 of the Declaration of Rights defines "bad behavior" of judges which could cause them to be removed from office:

"It is essential to the preservation of the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property, and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice... It is, therefore, not only the best policy, but for the security of the rights of the people, and of every citizen, that the judges of the supreme judicial court should hold their offices as long as they behave themselves well."

Article 30 of the Declaration of Rights further states that the judiciary may not invent their own laws -- only the Legislature can make laws:

"In the government of this commonwealth . . . the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men."

Article 1 of Chapter 3 of Section the Second defines the bill of address removal process for all judicial officers:

"All judicial officers, duly appointed, commissioned and sworn, shall hold their offices during good behavior, . . . the governor, with the consent of the council, may remove them upon the address of both houses of the legislature."

Theoretically, it could all happen in one day (not the multi-year process it takes for a Constitutional amendment)!

This bill of address goes back to English law -- the 1700 Act of Settlement, under the English monarchs William and Mary. Its purpose was the same: to ensure the accountability of public officers by the Parliament -- part of a true system of checks and balances -- rather than either simply giving judges unrestrained power or subjecting them to removal at the pleasure of the Crown.

Different from Impeachment

There is a big difference between removal by bill of address and impeachment. An impeachment process, as described in Article VIII or Section II of the Massachusetts Constitution, includes a trial by the House before the Senate for "misconduct and mal-administration in their offices".

The bill of address is different; it is a check and balance for misuse of power. Specifically, the bill of address is imposed for "bad behavior" which can include a range of issues, but is officially defined as not carrying out "an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice".

A bill of address process has no trial required. And there don't have to be any stated reasons. Thus, the process historically has happened very quickly.

What is really needed

A bill of address does require something that is in short supply these days: political courage from our legislators. But if the people of Massachusetts are to regain control of their government, and keep these four rogue justices from wreaking further social destruction, this is what is necessary. And it is necessary now.

Or else, what's next? The SJC is now in the process of re-examining the incest laws, according to newspaper reports, to see if they are also unconstitutional. This could be just the beginning.