Impeachment in the United States is an enumerated power of the legislature that allows formal charges to be brought against a civil officer of government for crimes alleged to have been committed. Most impeachments have concerned alleged crimes committed while in office, though there have been a few cases in which Congress has impeached and convicted officials partly for prior crimes. The actual trial on such charges, and subsequent removal of an official upon conviction, is separate from the act of impeachment itself. Impeachment proceedings have been initiated against several presidents of the United States. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only two presidents to have been successfully impeached by the House of Representatives, and both were later acquitted by the Senate. The impeachment process against Richard Nixon was technically unsuccessful, as Nixon resigned his office before the vote of the full House for impeachment, but successful in the broader sense of leading to Nixon's departure. To date, no U.S. President has been removed from office by impeachment and conviction.
Impeachment is analogous to indictment in regular court proceedings; trial by the other house is analogous to the trial before judge and jury in regular courts. Typically, the lower house of the legislature impeaches the official and the upper house conducts the trial.
At the federal level, Article II of the United States Constitution states in Section 4 that "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 House of Representatives has the sole power of impeaching, while the United States Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments. The removal of impeached officials is automatic upon conviction in the Senate. In Nixon v. United States (1993), the Supreme Court determined that the federal judiciary cannot review such proceedings.
At the Philadelphia Convention, Benjamin Franklin noted that, historically, the removal of "obnoxious" chief executives had been accomplished by assassination. Franklin suggested that a proceduralized mechanism for removal—impeachment—would be preferable.
Impeachment proceedings may be commenced by a member of the House of Representatives on her or his own initiative, either by presenting a list of the charges under oath, or by asking for referral to the appropriate committee. The impeachment process may be initiated by non-members. For example, when the Judicial Conference of the United States suggests a federal judge be impeached, a charge of actions constituting grounds for impeachment may come from a special prosecutor, the President, or state or territorial legislature, grand jury, or by petition.
The type of impeachment resolution determines the committee to which it is referred. A resolution impeaching a particular individual is typically referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. A resolution to authorize an investigation regarding impeachable conduct is referred to the House Committee on Rules, and then to the Judiciary Committee. The House Committee on the Judiciary, by majority vote, will determine whether grounds for impeachment exist. If the Committee finds grounds for impeachment, it will set forth specific allegations of misconduct in one or more articles of impeachment. The Impeachment Resolution, or Article(s) of Impeachment, are then reported to the full House with the committee's recommendations.
The House debates the resolution and may at the conclusion consider the resolution as a whole or vote on each article of impeachment individually. A simple majority of those present and voting is required for each article or the resolution as a whole to pass. If the House votes to impeach, managers (typically referred to as "House managers", with a "lead House manager") are selected to present the case to the Senate. Recently, managers have been selected by resolution, while historically the House would occasionally elect the managers or pass a resolution allowing the appointment of managers at the discretion of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. These managers are roughly the equivalent of the prosecution/district attorney in a standard criminal trial.
Also, the House will adopt a resolution in order to notify the Senate of its action. After receiving the notice, the Senate will adopt an order notifying the House that it is ready to receive the managers. The House managers then appear before the bar of the Senate and exhibit the articles of impeachment. After the reading of the charges, the managers return and make a verbal report to the House.
The proceedings unfold in the form of a trial, with each side having the right to call witnesses and perform cross-examinations. The House members, who are given the collective title of managers during the course of the trial, present the prosecution case, and the impeached official has the right to mount a defense with his own attorneys as well. Senators must also take an oath or affirmation that they will perform their duties honestly and with due diligence. After hearing the charges, the Senate usually deliberates in private. The U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction.
The Senate enters judgment on its decision, whether that be to convict or acquit, and a copy of the judgment is filed with the Secretary of State. Upon conviction in the Senate, the official is automatically removed from office and may also be barred from holding future office. The removed official is also liable to criminal prosecution. The President may not grant a pardon in the impeachment case, but may in any resulting criminal case.
Beginning in the 1980s with Harry E. Claiborne, the Senate began using "Impeachment Trial Committees" pursuant to Senate Rule XI. These committees presided over the evidentiary phase of the trials, hearing the evidence and supervising the examination and cross-examination of witnesses. The committees would then compile the evidentiary record and present it to the Senate; all senators would then have the opportunity to review the evidence before the chamber voted to convict or acquit. The purpose of the committees was to streamline impeachment trials, which otherwise would have taken up a great deal of the chamber's time. Defendants challenged the use of these committees, claiming them to be a violation of their fair trial rights as well as the Senate's constitutional mandate, as a body, to have "sole power to try all impeachments." Several impeached judges sought court intervention in their impeachment proceedings on these grounds, but the courts refused to become involved due to the Constitution's granting of impeachment and removal power solely to the legislative branch, making it a political question.
In the United Kingdom, impeachment was a procedure whereby a member of the House of Commons could accuse someone of a crime. If the Commons voted for the impeachment, a trial would then be held in the House of Lords. Unlike a bill of attainder, a law declaring a person guilty of a crime, impeachments did not require royal assent, so they could be used to remove troublesome officers of the Crown even if the monarch was trying to protect them.
The monarch, however, was above the law and could not be impeached, or indeed judged guilty of any crime. When King Charles I was tried before the Rump Parliament of the New Model Army in 1649 he denied that they had any right to legally indict him, their king, whose power was given by God and the laws of the country, saying: "no earthly power can justly call me (who is your King) in question as a delinquent … no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King." While the House of Commons pronounced him guilty and ordered his execution anyway, the jurisdictional issue tainted the proceedings.
With this example in mind, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention chose to include an impeachment procedure in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution which could be applied to any government official; they explicitly mentioned the President to ensure there would be no ambiguity. Opinions differed, however, as to the reasons Congress should be able to initiate an impeachment. Initial drafts listed only treason and bribery, but George Mason favored impeachment for "maladministration" (incompetence). James Madison argued that impeachment should only be for criminal behavior, arguing that a maladministration standard would effectively mean that the President would serve at the pleasure of the Senate. Thus the delegates adopted a compromise version allowing impeachment for "treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors."
The precise meaning of the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" is somewhat ambiguous; some scholars, such as Kevin Gutzman, argue that it can encompass even non-criminal abuses of power. Whatever its theoretical scope, however, Congress traditionally regards impeachment as a power to use only in extreme cases. The House of Representatives has actually initiated impeachment proceedings only 62 times since 1789. Two cases did not come to trial because the individuals had left office.
Actual impeachments of 19 federal officers have taken place. Of these, 15 were federal judges: thirteen district court judges, one court of appeals judge (who also sat on the Commerce Court), and one Supreme Court Associate Justice. Of the other four, two were Presidents, one was a Cabinet secretary, and one was a U.S. Senator. Of the 19 impeached officials, eight were convicted. One, former judge Alcee Hastings, was elected as a member of the United States House of Representatives after being removed from office.
The 1797 impeachment of Senator William Blount of Tennessee stalled on the grounds that the Senate lacked jurisdiction over him. No other member of Congress has ever been impeached. The Constitution does give authority to the Senate and House, so that each body may expel its own members. (see List of United States senators expelled or censured and List of United States Representatives expelled, censured, or reprimanded). Expulsion removes the individual from functioning as a representative or senator because of their misbehavior, but unlike impeachment, expulsion cannot result in barring an individual from holding future office.
While the actual impeachment of a federal public official is a rare event, demands for impeachment, especially of presidents, are common, going back to the administration of George Washington in the mid-1790s. In fact, most of the 63 resolutions mentioned above were in response to presidential actions.
While almost all of them were for the most part frivolous and were buried as soon as they were introduced, several did have their intended effect. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas both resigned in response to the threat of impeachment hearings, and, most famously, President Richard Nixon resigned from office after the House Judiciary Committee had already reported articles of impeachment to the floor.
State legislatures can impeach state officials, including governors. The court for the trial of impeachments may differ somewhat from the federal model—in New York, for instance, the Assembly (lower house) impeaches, and the State Senate tries the case, but the members of the seven-judge New York State Court of Appeals (the state's highest, constitutional court) sit with the senators as jurors as well. Impeachment and removal of governors has happened occasionally throughout the history of the United States, usually for corruption charges. A total of at least eleven U.S. state governors have faced an impeachment trial; a twelfth, Governor Lee Cruce of Oklahoma, escaped impeachment conviction by a single vote in 1912. Several others, most recently Connecticut's John G. Rowland, have resigned rather than face impeachment, when events seemed to make it inevitable. The most recent impeachment of a state governor occurred on January 14, 2009, when the Illinois House of Representatives voted 117-1 to impeach Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges; he was subsequently removed from office and barred from holding future office by the Illinois Senate on January 29. He was the eighth U.S. state governor to be removed from office.
The procedure for impeachment, or removal, of local officials varies widely. For instance, in New York a mayor is removed directly by the governor "upon being heard" on charges—the law makes no further specification of what charges are necessary or what the governor must find in order to remove a mayor.
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