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A process that is used to charge, try, and remove public officials for misconduct while in office.
Impeachment is a fundamental constitutional power belonging to Congress. This safeguard against corruption can be initiated against federal officeholders from the lowest cabinet member, all the way up to the president and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Besides providing the authority for impeachment, the U.S. Constitution details the methods to be used. The two-stage process begins in the House of Representatives with a public inquiry into allegations. It culminates, if necessary, with a trial in the Senate. State constitutions model impeachment processes for state officials on this approach. At both the federal and state levels, impeachment is rare: From the passage of the Constitution to the mid-1990s, only 50 impeachment proceedings were initiated, and only a third of these went as far as a trial in the Senate. The reluctance of lawmakers to use this power is a measure of its gravity; it is generally only invoked by evidence of criminality or substantial abuse of power.
The roots of impeachment date to ancient Athens. Its place in the U.S. Constitution was secured by the influence of English common law on the Framers of the Constitution. Originally, any English subject, politician, or ruler could institute impeachment charges in Parliament. By the fourteenth century, this power became the exclusive domain of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In 1776, the American colonies included much of the English tradition in state constitutions, but the delegates of the Constitutional Convention hotly debated how best to embody it in the federal Constitution. Their most contentious question was over the offenses that should be considered impeachable.
The result of the Framers' debate was a compromise: They borrowed language from English common law but adapted the grounds of impeachment. These grounds are specified in Article II, Section 4: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." The choice of the phrase "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" left the exact definition of impeachable offenses open to interpretation by Congress. It has invited considerable debate, but it is generally read to mean both indictable offenses and other serious noncriminal misconduct. The latter has included corruption, dereliction of constitutional duty, and violation of limitations on the power of an office. Under the Constitution, federal judges are held to the most exacting standard: They may remain on the bench only "during good Behavior" (art. III, sec. 1).
Impeachment is conducted in two stages. Impeachment proceedings begin in the House of Representatives (art. I, sec. 2). This stage satisfies the Framers' belief that impeachment should be a public inquiry into charges against an official, and it involves fact-finding at hearings. After accumulating all the evidence, the House votes on whether or not to impeach. A vote against impeachment ends the process. A vote to impeach formally advances the process to its second stage through what is called adoption of the articles of impeachment.Each article is a formal charge with conviction on any one article being sufficient for removal. The case is then sent to the Senate, which organizes the matter for trial (art. I, sec. 3).
During the trial, the Senate follows unique rules. There is no jury (art. III, sec. 2). Instead, the Senate is transformed into a quasi-judicial body that hears the case, and the impeached official can attend or be represented by counsel. The vice president presides over the trial of any official except the president, and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial of the president. To convict, a two-thirds majority is needed. The punishments for conviction are removal from office and disqualification from holding office again. No presidential pardon is possible (art. II, sec. 2). Additional criminal charges can be brought against convicted officials, but these are pursued in court and are separate from the impeachment process.
Impeachment is not often pursued. President Andrew Johnson was nearly impeached as a result of a bitter struggle in 1868 between his exercise of executive power and congressional will. He escaped an impeachment conviction in the Senate by a single vote. In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, resigned rather than face almost certain impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee had recommended that the full House take up three articles of impeachment against Nixon: obstruction of justice; abuse of constitutional authority; and refusal to answer the committee's subpoenas.
Congress has adopted the articles of impeachment against one senator, William Blount; one cabinet member, William W. Belknap; and one Supreme Court justice, Samuel Chase. It also has voted to impeach a small number of federal appeals and district court judges. In 1989, U.S. district court judge Alcee Hastings, of Miami, became only the twelfth federal judge in U.S. history to be impeached. His case was unique: He was the first African-American to be appointed to the Florida federal bench, and also the only judge to be impeached after an acquittal in a criminal trial. The House voted to adopt 17 articles of impeachment against him in 1988. After Hastings unsuccessfully challenged his impeachment in court in 1989, the Senate convicted him on eight of the articles and removed him from office.
The impeachment and trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999 demonstrated the difficulty of removing an official when the debate becomes politicized. The desire of the House of Representatives to impeach Clinton grew out of actions that had taken place in litigation involving Clinton and Paula Jones. Jones had filed a lawsuit against Clinton, alleging that he had sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. Clinton sought to postpone the suit until he left office but the U.S. Supreme Court, in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 117 S. Ct. 1636, 137 L. Ed. 2d 945 (1997), ruled that a sitting president does not have presidential immunity from suit over conduct unrelated to his official duties. Jones's attorneys then sought to obtain evidence for the trial. Clinton agreed to be deposed in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1998, the first sitting president to do so. At the deposition, Jones's attorney asked Clinton whether he been involved in a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He denied that there had been such a relationship and made other denials to questions about his conduct with Lewinsky. In written responses to interrogatories, Clinton made similar denials. Within days, the news media reported about allegations of a sexual affair between the president and the intern.
Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who was charged with investigating possible criminal activity by President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in an Arkansas real estate deal ("Whitewater"), worked with Jones's attorneys to develop evidence that Clinton had lied about the affair with Lewinsky. Starr threatened to subpoena Clinton to testify before a grand jury about possible perjury and obstruction of justice, but Clinton voluntarily agreed to appear before the grand jury. On August 17, 1998 Clinton changed his story when Starr questioned him before the grand jury. Clinton admitted that he had been alone with Lewinsky and that they had engaged in "inappropriate intimate contact."Much of Clinton's grand jury testimony contradicted the sworn testimony that he had given at the Jones deposition.
Starr prepared a 453-page report and submitted it to the House of Representatives on September 11, 1998. He accused Clinton of betraying his constitutional duty by engaging in a pattern of "abundant and calculating" lies regarding his relationship with Lewinsky. The report, which contained explicit language, was released on the Internet a few days later. The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee began deliberating the possibility of impeaching Clinton. On Dec. 11, 1998, after seven days of hearings, the Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the impeachment of President Clinton. On a 21-to-16, straight, party-line vote, the committee approved an article of impeachment claiming that Clinton had committed perjury before the grand jury. The committee passed two more articles, alleging perjury in the Paula Jones suit and obstruction of justice. On December 12, it passed a fourth article, alleging that Clinton had abused his power. On December 19, the full House of Representatives impeached Clinton, charging him with "high crimes and misdemeanors" for lying under oath and obstructing justice by trying to cover up his affair with Lewinsky. The House voted largely along party lines to approve two of the four proposed articles of impeachment.
The Senate began the impeachment trial on January 14, 1999. Thirteen House members, acting as prosecutors, spent three days making opening statements, laying out the case for the Senate to convict President Clinton and to remove him from office. The team of lawyers representing President Clinton spent the following three days presenting their lines of defense. After the Senate questioned both sides for several days, it adjourned the trial until House prosecutors could be take depositions from Lewinsky and others who had been involved in the alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate, on a 70-30 vote, decided not to call Lewinsky as a witness but permitted videotape excerpts of her testimony to be played at the trial. Both sides played excerpts that it believed to be favorable to its position, which were shown to the U.S. public through the televised deliberations. Closing arguments then were presented, and the Senate moved into closed-door deliberations on February 9, 1999.
On February 19, 1999, the Senate acquitted President Clinton of the two articles of impeachment. Rejecting the perjury charge, ten Republicans and all 45 Democrats voted not guilty. On the obstruction-of-justice charge, the Senate split 50-50. After the verdict was announced, Clinton stated that he was "profoundly sorry" for the burden he had imposed on the Congress and the citizens of the United States.
Impeachment remains the ultimate check on the abuse of power. By providing this power to Congress, the Framers drew on a long tradition of democratic skepticism about leaders. These provisions ensure that leaders will serve the people only so long as they respect the law and their offices. In this sense, the power of impeachment also stands ready to thwart tyranny. Calls are occasionally made for reform that would streamline the impeachment process, but its rare invocation and tradition of service make such reform unlikely.
Baron, Alan I. 1995. "The Curious Case of Alcee Hastings." Nova Law Review (spring).
Shea, Pegi Deitz. 2000. The Impeachment Process. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.
Smith, Alexa J. 1995. "Federal Judicial Impeachment: Defining Process Due." Hastings Law Journal 46 (January).
Strasser, Fred. 1989. "Proud, Unrepentant, Judge Hastings Exits." The National Law Journal (November 6).
Tupaz, Antonio R., and A. Edsel C.F. Tupaz. 2001. Fundamentals on Impeachment. Quezon City, Philippines: Central Lawbook Pub.
Villadolid, Oscar S., and Alice Colet Villadolid. 2001. The Impeachment of a President. Manila.