EXPLAINER: How Cuomo might be impeached, removed from office

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Andrew Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at New York’s Yankee Stadium, Monday, July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, buffeted by sexual harassment allegations, is increasingly looking like he could be impeached and removed from office — something that hasn’t happened to the state’s governor in nearly 108 years.

A majority of members of the state Assembly, the legislative body that has the power to start impeachment proceedings, have already said they favor removing Cuomo if he won’t resign. Pressure has built since a team of independent investigators hired by the state attorney general concluded that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has vowed to stay in office, rejecting the allegations against him as either fabricated or a misunderstanding of gestures and comments meant to convey warmth.

If the Legislature goes ahead with an impeachment, it will follow procedures that have some parallels — and some important differences — to the process the U.S. Congress uses for impeaching presidents.

Here’s a look at how impeachment might work:

THE PROCESS

Like at the federal level, New York impeachments start in the lower house of the legislature — in this case, the Assembly.

The state’s constitution says the Assembly can impeach officials with a simple majority vote for “misconduct or malversation.”

If a majority of members vote to impeach, a trial on Cuomo’s removal from office would be held in what’s known as the Impeachment Court.

The court consists not only of members of the state Senate, but also judges of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, who would also cast votes.

There are seven appeals court judges and 63 senators, though not all would serve on the impeachment court. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (HOH-kull) and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins would also typically be members, but they are excluded when a governor is on trial.

At least two-thirds of the jurors must vote to convict in order to remove Cuomo.

HISTORICAL PRECEDENT

New York has only impeached a governor once, in 1913, when Gov. William Sulzer was bounced after just 289 days in office in what he claimed was retribution for turning his back on the powerful Tammany Hall Democratic machine.

Sulzer was accused of failing to report thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and commingling campaign funds with personal funds. He blasted the court’s secret deliberations, complaining: “A horse thief in frontier days would have received a squarer deal.”

SIDELINING CUOMO

If Cuomo were impeached by the Assembly, the state constitution forces him to step aside immediately, according to some legal experts, and remain on the sidelines until his trial is complete.

That’s a dramatic difference from what happens when the U.S. president is impeached.

When Sulzer was impeached, Lt. Gov. Martin Glynn was appointed acting governor. Sulzer, however, didn’t accept his suspension, arguing that the state constitution allowed him to continue performing his duties until he was convicted.

The dispute was never decided by a court, but Gerald Benjamin — an expert on the New York Constitution and a political scientist at SUNY New Paltz — said he believed the rules governing impeachment are clear: Cuomo would have to temporarily relinquish power to Hochul.

“The constitution is clear. He remains governor until he is impeached,” Benjamin said. “Once they impeach him, she (Hochul) acts as governor.”

If Cuomo were to be acquitted by the Impeachment Court, he would return to office. If he’s convicted, Hochul would serve out the remainder of Cuomo’s term — through the end of 2022. The court could also opt to disqualify him from holding office in the future.

THE TIMELINE

How quickly could this all happen? It’s not clear.

The Assembly’s judiciary committee has scheduled its next meeting for Aug. 9. A law firm representing the committee has given Cuomo until Aug. 13 to turn over evidence to bolster his defense.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said he wants to wrap up the investigation “as quickly as possible.”

But drafting articles of impeachment could take time.

One issue is that the Assembly, when it first began contemplating impeachment, asked investigators to look into a range of issues beyond sexual harassment. There’s a discussion among lawmakers now about how to handle other parts of the inquiry, including an examination of Cuomo’s handling of data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, his use of state employees to help him with a $5 million book deal and even potential safety issues on a newly built bridge.

“As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of things that are on table, and what would happen is we’d have to see what the committee thinks the articles of impeachment should include,” said Judiciary Committee member Phil Steck, a Democrat. “It gets complicated and I don’t see how we’re going to do this in a couple of hours.”

Lawmakers have yet to agree on key questions, like whether there will be public hearings.

“Are the witnesses willing to testify?” Judiciary Committee member Tom Abinanti, also a Democrat, said. “Do the written documents support what we’re going to allege? We’re almost in the role of a grand jury and the prosecutor. We’ve got to decide: is the evidence sufficient and does it in fact constitute an impeachable offense? It’s not so easy.”

In the meantime, many elected officials in New York are hoping that Cuomo will save the legislature the trouble and resign.

So far, Cuomo has insisted he isn’t going anywhere, saying Tuesday he would focus on doing more for New Yorkers, even as other leaders called for his ouster.

“I will not be distracted from that job. We have a lot to do,” Cuomo said.

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