Media Mention

Ed Larson: How TN’s infamous Scopes monkey trial can inform Trump’s impeachment trial

January 20, 2020

Note: this op-ed was originally published in the Tennessean, and was written by Checks & Balances member Ed Larson. 

Ninety-five years ago, John Raulston, a then-obscure judge in Dayton, Tennessee, made a decision that sullied his name and the state’s reputation. He refused to allow witnesses for the defense in the infamous Scopes “monkey” trial.

This disappointed many. Before the trial, he invited both sides to call experts to debate the merits of Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law. The state’s celebrity prosecutor, famed orator William Jennings Bryan, had done the same by calling for “a battle royale” in the courtroom over the statute, which banned schools from teaching “any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible.”

A fateful decision

In response, the defense assembled a stellar panel of Christian theologians and scientists from Nashville, Princeton and Chicago to testify that science was compatible with scripture. After failing to find comparable experts for his side, Bryan moved to exclude all such witnesses. Inappropriately pressed by the governor, Raulston reluctantly sustained the prosecution’s motion, resulting in Scopes’ summary conviction.

While some partisans welcomed Raulston’s ruling at the time, history has condemned it. Here was a chance to do what the judge and both sides initially wanted: examine the evidence and help resolve this matter in the public mind. Instead, Tennessee was widely ridiculed for staging a kangaroo court or religious inquisition. “Inherit the Wind,” the ever-popular play and movie about the trial, pillared the exclusion of witnesses.

Let the Scopes trial inform present conduct

Once again, this time in the U.S. Senate, the admissibility of witnesses is a key issue in a public trial. Polls show most Americans want to hear the testimony of relevant witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Every prior impeachment trial involved witnesses. Why not now?

Largely because they refused to come, key witnesses did not appear at the House impeachment hearings. Yet if impeachment by the House is akin to indictment by a grand jury, charges are customarily brought with limited evidence supplied by the prosecution. All relevant testimony should come out at trial, however, with both sides free to call relevant witnesses.

The judge determines the admissibility of evidence at a criminal trial, much as Judge Raulston did at the Scopes trial. In an impeachment trial, that duty falls on the senators, two of whom come from Tennessee. They should not repeat Raulston’s mistake.

In 1925, as local counsel for Scopes, University of Tennessee law professor John Neal assisted in making the case for witnesses. Today, as a former UT President, Sen. Lamar Alexander should welcome witnesses and then vote his conscience after hearing all the testimony. Alexander has indicated a willingness to hear witnesses testify.

Continue reading at the Tennessean.

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