The Process of “Impeachment” in the United States of America
The process of Impeachment is determined by a legislative body levelling charges against a highly ranked official of the government. The term “Impeachment” is not the equivalent of removal from the office, it is a charge, or an indictment as reported in criminal law. This is the first step toward removal in office. Once one is impeached, he may be convicted by a legislative vote impending on his ability to continue his functions at the high office.
Impeachment finds his origins in the English Law but fell out of favors in the 18th Century. Country like Brazil, India, Ireland, Russia, South Korea as well as the United States and others continue to use the process in their constitution. It requires a majority to impeach or convict an elected or appointed official from a high office because they have committed serious abuses or high crimes in office.
“Impeachment” derives from Old French: empeechier”, from the Latin word “impedicare” meaning the fact of being caught or entrapped like the term “empecher” in French and “impede” in English” while in the medieval time, the term “impede” was the equivalent of “attack”. Nowadays, impeach a witness is challenging his credibility and his honesty.
The Impeachment process was first used by the English Parliament to punish Baron Latimer in the 14th century and later in United States, many constitutions of Virginia (1776), Massachusetts (1780) and many other states have adopted such process. Even some organizations as well, have started to develop that notion to impeach. Many other countries also like Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Norway Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Russia, United Kingdom etc. used this process to impeach their presidents with a minimum of 2/3 of the members votes.
In United Kingdom, this is the House of Commons, the equivalent of the Congress or Chamber of Representatives for us, that hold the power to initiate such action and if the motion is passed, the mover receives orders to go to the House of Lords, the equivalent of our Senate to impeach the accused. If impeached, the accused remains in custody unless the Lords allow bail. A date for the trial is set and managers are appointed by the Commons, acting as prosecutors. A counsel may defend the accused. The gearing resembles an ordinary trial and both sides present witnesses to testify. If the Lords find the accused guilty, the Commons may move for judgement. Punishment or Royal pardon can conclude the trial with a pardon possibly overriding any decision.
Parliament has always held the power of impeachment but as described above, the House of Commons and further the House of Lords shared the duties until the Reign of Edward IV when this process become the preferred way to deal with undesirable subjects of the Crown. It came back into favor under the reign of James I. In 1820 Queen Caroline, consort of King George IV was tried by the House of Commons and acquitted.
In Modern politics, this procedure has become rarely used because now in a responsible government in Great Britain, the Prime Minister and other executive officers respond to the Parliament allowing the Commons to remove such an officer through a motion of “No confidence” without a long process of impeachment. Many in 1967, still argued that as part of the British constitutional law, a legislation will be needed to abolish it. A Joint Committee in 1999 considered the circumstances of an impeachment so remote that the procedure was found obsolete.
In 2004, Adam Price announced his intention to move to impeach Prime Minister Tony Blair for having Britain involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Leader of the House of Commons, Peter Han. Bluntly, responded that the process of impeachment has effectively died with the 1999 Joint Committee report.
In the United States, only two presidents have ever been impeached and neither was convicted of the charges filed against them. The House impeached Andrew Jackson on February 24, 1868 for violating the “Tenure of Office Act”. Bill Clinton was impeached on December 18, 1998 by the House of the Representatives on Perjury charges and obstruction of Justice relating to Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate. For Richard Nixon, he most likely would have been impeached but fortunately for him, he resigned from the Presidency in 1974 prior to being convicted.
I remember well the details of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton with Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding and the House managers in session as well as the president’s personal Counsel. It was a reminiscence of the trial of President Andrew Jackson more than a century prior. History repeats itself. In all fairness to President Andrew Jackson, the Tenure of Office act was found later to be unconstitutional.
In the USA, the House of Representatives has the sole power of impeachment, similarly as described above with the British system but in variation, this process is the first two stages and if a conviction is needed, it will take the votes of two-third of the members present. Like in the British system, Impeachment does not necessary result in removal from office. A second legislative will determine conviction or acquittal. A supermajority is needed to convict, and the accused may or may not face removal from high office. In the British law as already discussed, there is also Royal Pardon.
The American Law limits Impeachment to The President, Vice-President and all civil officers of the United States who may be removed from office for “treason, bribery or any high crimes”. Ongoing discussions for adding members of Congress to the list of impeachable are being held as well. Senator William Blount was impeached in 1798 and was even expulsed from the Senate but the charges were dismissed at the trial. Therefore, this question on members of Congress has been raised and is still debated. No other Member of Congress has ever been impeached. “Expulsion” remains the practical way of choice to “impeach” a Member of Congress or Senate since each house has the authority to expel its own member without involving the other house.
I will refer you to the Jefferson’s Manual to review the rules of the House of Representatives, stipulating that an impeachment is set in motion by charges made on the floor, or on a message from the president or on facts reported by an investigating committee of the House.
At the federal level, there are two steps in an impeachment. The House of Representatives must first pass by a simple majority the articles of Impeachment and next the Senate will try the accused. The chief Justice of the United States presides over the proceedings, but the constitution is silent on who shall preside if any other official is at fault, suggesting that it maybe the role of the Senate and the Vice-President of the United States.
It is mandatory to have obtained a two-third of the votes with the members present to convict an accused in the House of the Representatives. This conviction may remove the defendant from office and the Senate may vote to further punish the individual by barring him or her from holding future federal office, elected or appointed. Once again, conviction by the Senate does not bring criminal prosecution. Even after an accused has left office, it is possible to disqualify this person for competing for any future office or even aspirating to his pension. Finally, if the defendant is found not guilty, he will be acquitted, and no punishment is imposed.
Congress has regarded impeachment as a power to be used only in extreme cases. This process by the House of Representatives was initiated only 64 times since 1789 but only most recently in 2010, Judge Thomas Porteous of the United States District Court for Eastern District of Louisiana was removed from office and impeached. As many as 14 federal judges were found guilty and removed from office. Supreme court Samuel Chase was impeached in 1804 and acquitted by the Senate. Judge Alcee Hastings was guilty for receiving in bribe 150.000 dollars in exchange of leniency. The Senate did not bar him from taking future office. He ran and won election to the House of Representatives in Florida. He was later considered as the choice to become Majority Leader in lieu of Nancy Pelosi. He did not follow the idea.
There have been also unsuccessful attempts to initiate impeachment proceedings on Presidents Richard Nixon, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Many State Governors were also involved in impeachment and three of them were impeached and removed from office:
1- Jack Walton, Democratic Governor of Oklahoma for illegal collection of campaign funds, general incompetence and excessive use of power. He was convicted and removed from office in November 1923.
2-Evan Mecham, Republican Governor of Arizona was impeached and removed from office for misusing government funds and obstruction of Justice.
3- Rod Blagojevich, Democratic Governor of Illinois was impeached for abuse of power, corruption. He was removed from office in January 2009.
I hope this review on the Impeachment process in the United States, will allow many to understand the legal ramifications and the obstacles one has to face when such a decision has to be considered.
1-Erskine, Daniel H (2008) “the Trial of Queen Caroline and the Impeachment of President Clinton: Law as a Weapon for Political Freedom”. Washington University Global Studies Law Review 7(1) ISSN 1546-6981.
2-Demeter, George (1969) Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, 1969 ed p 265.
3-Don Riley (2017) LOCK HIM UP Impeachments in the United States (SI) LULU
4- Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone Vol 4 Chapter 19 (1769)
5- Raoul Berger, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems p 132 (1974, Harvard University Press)
6-“Report from the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege”, HC 34 1967-68 p 115
7- US Constitution, Article I and 3, clause 6 / Article II, Section 4
8- Senate List of Impeachment Trails Archived. December 8, 2010 at Web cite
9- “Impeachment History” Infoplease Retrieved 2013-07-12
10- The term and Trails of Former Governor Evan Mecham New York: William Morrow and Co ISBN 0-688-09051-6
Maxime Coles MD