Impeachment

By Valerie Earle
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Impeachment is the first step in the process specified in the Constitution of the United States for removing the president, vice-president, or other government official from office upon conviction of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The U.S. House of Representatives has "the sole power of impeachment" that is, the power of bringing charges. The U.S. Senate has "the sole power to try all impeachments." Conviction in the Senate requires a two-thirds vote. When the president is to be tried, the chief justice of the United States presides. A conviction in an impeachment proceeding results only in removal from office and disqualification to hold "any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States." A person convicted in an impeachment, however, is subject to further "indictment, trial, judgment, and punishment according to Law."

Impeachment originated in England, where the House of Commons would present articles of impeachment to the House of Lords, which then tried the case. A well-known instance was the impeachment and trial (178695) of Warren Hastings, first governor general of India.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution, although committed to a separation of powers and independence of the three branches of government from one another, believed that a means must be provided by which officers thought to be guilty of significant misconduct could be tried and removed. They did not want the procedure to be overly simple to invoke, nor the penalty too easily imposed hence, the requirements of the two-thirds vote for conviction in the Senate, and the stipulation that impeachment be for "treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeandors." To George Mason's suggestion that "maladministration" be a ground for impeachment, both James Madison and Gouverneur Morris objected that so vague a term would surely produce the result that tenure in office would be at the pleasure of the Senate.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was tried by the Senate on charges voted by the House. The Senate failed by one vote to convict Johnson. In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee voted three charges of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon, but he resigned from office before the charges could be voted upon by the House. In December 1998 the full House, dividing largely along partisan lines, voted to impeach President Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's trial by the Senate began in January 1999. On February 12 he was acquitted by a vote of 55-45 on the first charge and 50-50 on the second.

Impeachment proceedings have been brought with some frequency against federal judges. In 1804, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase was impeached on purely political grounds, but his acquittal (1805) effectively halted the use of impeachment to remove judges for political reasons. It has often been said that the cumbersome and time-consuming process of impeachment is unsuited to the removal of a merely venal judge. Nevertheless, because the Constitution specifies that judges hold office during good behavior, impeachment remains the only means by which a federal judge may be removed.

Certain questions concerning the impeachment process have persisted: whether it is judicial or political in nature; how to define "high crimes and misdemeanors"; and whether a conviction can be appealed to the Supreme Court. Although no conclusive answer can be given, it is safe to say that the judicial process of impeachment will always be infused with political motives; that the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" will never become entirely precise; and that once the Senate has voted to convict by a two-thirds majority, the Supreme Court is unlikely to take jurisdiction.

Valerie A. Earle

Bibliography: Berger, Raoul, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems (1973); Black, Charles L., Impeachment: A Handbook (1974; repr. 1998); Bushnell, Eleanore, Crimes, Follies, and Misfortunes: The Federal Impeachment Trials (1992); Gerhardt, Michael J., The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis (1996); Hoffer, Peter C., and Hull, N. E., Impeachment in America, 1635 to 1805 (1984); Labovitz, John R., Presidential Impeachment (1978); Posner, Richard A., An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton (1999); Rehnquist, William H., Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson (1992; repr. 1993); Smith, Gene, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1976); White, T. H., Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975).

  • Subjects:
    The Presidency
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