If you’re a governor, the last lawyer you want to end up hiring is Ross Garber. It’s not that he’s a bad lawyer. It’s that hiring him means you’ve gotten yourself in serious trouble. Garber is the man governors call when they face threats of impeachment.
Gubernatorial impeachments are exceedingly rare. In all of American history, only a dozen governors have been impeached, with about half of those removed from office. The last one was Democrat Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who was impeached a decade ago for trying to sell an appointment to a U.S. Senate seat.
But other governors have gotten into enough trouble that their legislatures seriously explored the idea of impeachment. Over the past 20 years, Garber has represented four of them -- John Rowland of Connecticut, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Robert Bentley of Alabama, and Eric Greitens of Missouri. All are Republicans and all of them ended up stepping down except Sanford, who limped through the remainder of his term.
Garber had been active in Connecticut politics when he got a call from Rowland looking for some legal help. Once he’d notched that experience, he began to carve out a niche as the go-to guy for governors in peril. Garber, who has always been fascinated by Watergate, has spent his career at the intersection of law and politics.
It’s important to remember, although many of us forget, that while those two fields may overlap, they’re not the same. Politicians often end up digging themselves into deeper holes when their impulse is to respond to legal problems in a political fashion -- holding news conferences, for example. They should bear in mind the legal implications of their actions, Garber says. All governors at some point do things that the people around them advised them not to do -- especially staff lawyers, who are always telling elected officials why they can’t do things. After that happens enough times, it triggers a tendency among some governors to think they know best, which isn’t always the case once they’re entering into uncharted waters. “When you’re going through an investigation that’s incredibly serious,” Garber says, “it’s hard to maintain the same good instincts that you have when you’re dealing with political issues.”
Garber stresses that in impeachment cases, he’s not representing the governor as an individual, but rather the governor’s office. That means dealing not only with the accused but also with document and interview requests made to staff by legislators and investigators. As the rare individual likely to have been involved in impeachment proceedings before, Garber tries to educate legislators and the public about all the issues and complications that are involved. “For sure, I have a client,” he says, “but I think I also have general credibility on the issue.”
The impeachment process inevitably turns political -- but it’s not wholly political. There are legal guardrails in place that vary among the states. In the Bentley case in Alabama, legislators became convinced they could fast-track the impeachment process. They cut too many corners, and Garber successfully won an injunction to slow things down and protect due process for the governor, who ended up resigning in a negotiated deal that bars him from seeking public office again.
It’s been a year since Greitens stepped down in Missouri, amid a sex-and-campaign-finance scandal. Since then, Garber has kept himself busy doing other things, teaching law at Tulane University and appearing as a commentator on CNN. But should some other governor find him- or herself perilously close to the wrong side of the law, it’s likely that Garber will be summoned once again. Lots of lawyers maintain specialized practices, but when it comes to working with politicians accused of impeachable offenses, Garber has no real competitors.