NEW ORLEANS — As he navigates a seamy swirl of scandals, Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri finds himself the newest member of a small, unenviable club: governors so embattled they risked being expelled from office.
But political crackups have given rise to another similarly select group: the handful of lawyers who shepherd governors and lawmakers through the trauma of a possible impeachment. Despite the high stakes and bright lights, the nation’s statehouse impeachment bar is made of up just a few battle-tested lawyers who have improvised legal strategies largely on history and hunches.
So it was hardly surprising when Mr. Greitens’s office brought in Ross H. Garber, a professed “Watergate nerd” who, after representing besieged governors in Alabama, Connecticut and South Carolina, has arguably become the nation’s leading practitioner of a subspecialty whose relevance can be a barometer of political rancor.
“The personalities are different, the politics are different, the facts are always different,” Mr. Garber, 51, said in an interview at his purple-hued shotgun home near the French Quarter in New Orleans.
But when a governor is on the ropes, he said, “some fundamentals wind up being the same.”
An impeachment, lawyers who have worked on such proceedings around the country agree, is a political process imbued with law, where electoral rivalries and ambitions uncomfortably share the stage with talk of traditions and procedures.
“The interesting thing about an impeachment — and people always need to keep this in mind — is it’s inherently a political exercise, and not a legal exercise,” said David Ellis, who prosecuted Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois during his Senate trial in 2009 when Mr. Blagojevich was convicted and removed from office. “It’s governed by the legislature, not the courts. Courts have all sorts of procedural protections built in — due process rights, impartial juries — but you cannot perfectly analogize that to the legislative realm.”
With impeachments still relatively rare, even as some Democrats talk of removing President Trump from office, lawyers working recent cases in state capitals like Montgomery, Ala., have found little precedent to guide them. Instead they often find that the processes long codified in constitutions can, in modern practice, be murky to the point of inviting chaos.
That lack of clarity invites clashes about privileges and subpoena power, legislative authority and access to evidence. Arcane-seeming subjects may be able to reshape a state’s approach to executive power. And a particular brand of politics — fueled by self-flagellation, piety, pride and legal jeopardy — seems to thread through every threatened impeachment.
“There’s a common structure, but as far as how you’re supposed to do it on the ground, substantively or procedurally or in terms of burden of proof, there’s a lot of debate on that, and not a lot of consensus,” said Jackson R. Sharman III, who was special counsel to the Alabama legislative committee that investigated Gov. Robert Bentley before his resignation last year.
The absence of norms lends extraordinary influence to the lawyers who are often tasked with speedily setting up something resembling, but not always behaving like, a traditional investigation and trial.
Mr. Ellis was counsel to the state’s House speaker when legislative leaders urged him to take the case, a role he said he accepted only after “a pregnant pause.” He had about two weeks to prepare for trial.
Mr. Garber, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer who once edited his high school newspaper, more or less fell into impeachments as a legal niche. After Mr. Garber’s bid for Connecticut state treasurer faltered — he was “the silver medalist,” he noted wryly — Gov. John G. Rowland’s office sought the lawyer’s help for a federal corruption investigation. Mr. Rowland had lawyers on his staff, but, like those in all governor’s offices, they were far more familiar with legislative haggling than with inquiries that could lead to prison terms.
Mr. Rowland resigned before lawmakers could decide whether to impeach him. But Mr. Garber, who describes his work as safeguarding the institutional traditions and privileges of the governor’s offices he represents, had stumbled into a legal arena in which few others were experts.
He was later asked to advise Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, whom lawmakers eventually declined to impeach over accusations connected to his whereabouts while he visited his mistress in Argentina.
And then last year, Mr. Garber, whose usual work includes handling regulatory investigations and international trade issues, was on Mr. Bentley’s team after the Alabama governor was enmeshed in a sex scandal. He said his name comes up so often because there are so few in the field.
“Because so much of what happens isn’t reported or recorded or even known, one of the things I bring to the process is the sense of having done them and spent a lot of time studying them,” Mr. Garber said.
At the federal level, the United States Senate has conducted just 19 impeachment trials in its history; nearly all have been of federal judges, including the most recent, in 2010. State legislatures have impeached a host of lower-ranking officials, from a university regent in Nebraska to a Kentucky agriculture commissioner, but only 16 governors have ever been impeached, and almost all were before the Great Depression.
Although some governors, like Mr. Sanford, withstand the pressure, modern governors tend to succumb to political or legal realities and leave office before an impeachment can happen.
Neither Mr. Bentley, who now practices dermatology in an Alabama college town, nor Mr. Sanford, a member of Congress, responded to messages. Mr. Blagojevich and Mr. Rowland, who were convicted of corruption charges after leaving office, are in federal custody.
For Mr. Garber, whose bills are often paid with tax dollars because he is not representing a governor’s personal interests, part of his job is ensuring that politics alone do not settle impeachments and undermine the authority of governors for generations to come.
His goal, he said, is to argue “that our constitutional system is set up so that elections don’t get overthrown because of political whims, that elections have consequences and we don’t throw those out absent very, very serious acts that affect the public official’s office, that are proven with a high degree of certainty after a fair process.”
Missouri lawmakers are still grappling over how they will reckon with Mr. Greitens, who has been criminally charged with two felonies: invasion of privacy, for photographing a nude or partially nude person without the person’s knowledge or consent, and for tampering with computer data for allegedly obtaining a charity’s donor list and using it for political fund-raising.
The governor has denied criminal wrongdoing and rebuffed demands for his resignation, calling the efforts against him “a witch hunt.” A legislative committee will decide in the coming weeks whether to pursue the impeachment process that is broadly outlined in the Missouri Constitution.
Mr. Garber, who teaches about political investigations and impeachments at Tulane University’s law school and largely splits his time between Washington, Hartford and New Orleans, declined to detail any of his plans for the Missouri case. His record, though, suggests that he will argue, in public and in private, that lawmakers should not hastily negate the voters’ choice for governor and should save impeachment for a most exceptional case.
Like just about every impeachment lawyer these days, he is likely to look to history, where the proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon remain especially important for lawyers working in state capitols. More than 40 years later, it remains a lesson in the strategies and risks that come with representing the most powerful figures in government.
“Institutions, even something so sophisticated as the White House,” Mr. Garber observed, “aren’t set up to deal with these kinds of crises.”
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