Criminal Justice

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, has taken a leave of absence from the firm as it investigates claims by two women that he sexually assaulted them.

Morrison & Foerster chairman Larren Nashelsky told the National Law Journal that Fairfax is cooperating in the investigation.

“We take the allegations against Justin very seriously,” Nashelsky told the publication. “As a firm, we believe that it is important to seriously listen to any allegation of sexual assault or harassment and to treat all persons making such allegations with respect and sensitivity.”

Meredith Watson of Maryland has alleged that Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2000 while they were students at Duke University. Vanessa Tyson, a Scripps College professor, has alleged that Fairfax sexually assaulted her in a hotel room at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Fairfax has said the incidents were consensual, and he has called for an FBI investigation.

A Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Patrick Hope, had said he would initiate impeachment proceedings against Fairfax. On Monday morning, however, Hope tweeted that he has received “sincere and thoughtful feedback” and additional conversations need to take place before any steps are taken. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times have coverage.

Impeachment may not be an option, according to George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf. He told the Wall Street Journal that the Virginia Constitution appears to allow impeachment proceedings only for offenses committed while in office.

University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard agreed that conduct unrelated to office is probably not ground for impeachment, although he told the Washington Post there is disagreement with that view. Howard helped draft the current version of the state constitution.

The debate centers on a clause in the Virginia Constitution that lists grounds for impeachment as “offending against the commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor.”

Marcus Simon, a Virginia Democrat, is a member of the House of Delegates and parliamentarian for House Democrats. He said impeachment would be difficult because the committee that would hold hearings does not have power to subpoena documents and compel witness testimony, according to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Simon also said he doesn’t think sexual assault allegations would be impeachable offenses under the constitution.

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