Impeachment: What it Means and Historical Use

For weeks, news feeds have been full of the impeachment process against President Trump. Unfortunately, most people aren’t fully aware of exactly what impeachment is, how it works in the US system or its history.

Strictly speaking, impeachment is the leveling of charges against a government official. It’s roughly equivalent to an indictment in criminal law, and impeachment itself neither establishes guilt nor removes the official from their post. It does open the option for a conviction by legislative vote, usually following a trial by elected representatives.

Who Has the Power to Impeach?

In the US, impeachment is carried out by the House of Representatives. Under Article I of the Constitution, only the House has the power to impeach officers of the federal government, and this power is strictly limited. To prevent abuse, the Constitution limits impeachment to those accused of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Unfortunately “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” aren’t strictly defined in the Constitution, and historically that’s given the House leeway for interpretation. Less than a third of Articles of Impeachment drawn up by the House was for actual crimes, and people have been impeached for drunkenness, biased decision-making and “rude speech.”

In an effort to clarify what’s impeachable and what isn’t, Congress has identified three main grounds for impeachment:

1) exceeding or abusing the powers of the office;

2) behavior incompatible with the function and purpose of the office; and

3) misusing the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

The Constitution also designates who can be impeached — “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States.” Again, “civil officers” isn’t explicitly defined, but it’s been taken to mean federal judges and senior officials appointed by the president, such as the heads of federal agencies.

Who Can Bring Impeachment Proceedings?

Any member of the House can request impeachment proceedings. They can either present a list of charges themselves, under oath, or ask for a referral to an appropriate congressional committee. Once charges have been leveled, they’re presented to the House as an Impeachment Resolution, also known as Articles of Impeachment. The House will investigate the charges and debate the resolution, then vote, by a simple majority, on whether or not to accept it.

What Happens When the Impeachment Resolution Passes?

If the Impeachment Resolution passes, it will then proceed to the Senate. This stage takes the form of a trial. Members of the House, called managers for the purposes of the impeachment process, will act as prosecutors. The Cheif Justice of the Supreme Court will act as the judge for the proceedings. The entire Senate will act as the jury.

The subject of the impeachment proceeding is responsible for hiring attorneys to defend against charges. Both sides can call their own witnesses and cross-examine the other side’s witnesses. Once charges, witnesses and evidence have been presented, the Senate will debate in private and then vote.

Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority; if this passes, there will be a second vote to decide whether or not the defendant should be barred from holding a federal office again. The only actual punishment the Senate can impose is removal from office.

History of Articles of Impeachment

Since the US became independent, the House has passed Articles of Impeachment 20 times, starting with Senator William Blount (DR-TN) in 1797. Four presidents have been impeached — James Buchanan, Andrew Jackson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump; the first three were acquitted by the Senate, the case for President Trump is about to proceed to the Republican-majority Senate.

Eight federal judges have also been removed from office, and while the Senate refused to accept William Blount’s impeachment by the House, it proceded to expelled him on its own authority.

Impeachment will always be a controversial issue, but in a democracy, it’s a vital tool. Although the safeguards included in the Constitution can’t stop impeachment from being used as a political weapon, those safeguards reduce the chances of a spurious impeachment succeeding.

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