The term impeachment refers to the legal process that takes place when charges are brought against a public official, to determine whether he or she can and should be removed from office. Contrary to popular belief, impeachment is not the actual removal from office, but the procedure that must be followed in order to achieve such a removal. If the trial that occurs following impeachment results in a conviction, the official is removed from office. To explore this concept, consider the following impeachment definition.
Definition of Impeachment
- Impeaching a public official before a tribunal
- The presentation of formal charges against a public official
- Showing that a witness is not believable
1350-1400 Middle English < Anglo French empechement
What is Impeachment
Impeachment is a process that takes place in order to determine whether a public official can be removed from office after being accused of a wrongdoing. Each country around the globe has laws that address the process of impeachment. These laws specify which public officials are subject to impeachment, the legislative body allowed to initiate impeachment proceedings, and how many votes are required to convict the official, for removal from office.
Generally speaking, only legislative entities have the authority to impeach public officials. In the United States, impeachment can be undertaken at both the federal and state levels, though it is a rare occurrence. Impeachment is usually used only when crimes are committed by the individual in question, not for questions of mismanagement of the office or public disapproval.
The Impeachment Process
Before an official can be impeached, certain steps must be followed. The impeachment process ensures the case is reviewed fairly, and that the rights of the official facing impeachment are preserved. The impeachment process involves three main bodies, the House of Representatives, the House Judiciary Committee, and the Senate.
Steps in the Impeachment Process
- Impeachment Resolution. When members of the House of Representatives make impeachment resolutions, they are turned over to the House Judiciary Committee. The Committee decides whether or not the allegations made against the official warrant a full investigation, and formal impeachment inquiry.
- Formal Impeachment Inquiry. On recommendation of the House Judiciary Committee, the House of Representatives votes on a formal impeachment inquiry. A simple majority vote is all that is needed for approval.
- Investigation. If the inquiry is approved, the matter goes back to the House Judiciary Committee, which begins an investigation to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to issue articles of impeachment. This is similar in nature to a Grand Jury indictment. If so, the Committee drafts articles of impeachment by outlining specific charges, according to the evidence acquired. The Committee then votes on each article of impeachment, to determine whether each should be referred to the House of Representatives for a full vote.
- Vote by House of Representatives. If the committee refers any articles of impeachment, the House of Representatives votes on whether the articles warrant a Senate trial. Once again, a simple majority vote is needed.
- Impeachment. If the House approves one or more articles of impeachment, the official is officially impeached, which is similar to being “charged” with a wrongdoing, and the matter goes to the Senate. The House of Representatives then appoints certain members of Congress to act as managers of the trial, similar to “prosecutors.”
- Impeachment Trial. Impeachment trials are held before the Senate, with the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presiding. The official may be represented by anyone he chooses. The trial process is similar to an actual trial, in a courtroom setting, with questioning of witnesses, and presentation of evidence. The senators must remain quiet, but may direct questions by sending them in writing to the Chief Justice.
- Deliberation. After viewing all of the evidence, hearing testimony, and listening to closing arguments, the Senate retires to private chambers to deliberate.
- Vote. After reaching a decision on the matter, the Senate returns to open session, where it votes in public whether to convict or acquit the official. A vote to convict must be by a two-thirds majority, which is 67 senators.
- Removal from Office. If the required majority vote convicts the official, he or she is removed from office. This vote by the senate is final, and the official has no right of appeal.
In the United States, Congress has reserved the power to impeach for very extreme cases. The House of Representatives has only initiated impeachment proceedings 64 times since the late 1700s. Out of those 64 cases, only 19 actual impeachments took place, and 8 of these officials were removed from office as a result.
The most recent impeachment proceedings were brought against Thomas Porteous, a judge sitting on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The 2010 impeachment process was brought against Porteous that he had repeatedly committed perjury by signing false disclosure forms under oath. These falsified documents enabled Porteous to hide the fact that he had been receiving money and other things of value from attorneys appearing in cases before him. Porteous was removed from office on December 8, 2010.
Presidential Impeachment Cases
The U.S. House of Representatives has issued articles of impeachment only twice before. These include the impeachment of Presidents Andrew Johnson, in 1868, and William “Bill” Clinton in 1998. Another president, Richard Nixon, faced the possibility of impeachment after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment. The matter never reached the House of Representatives, however, as Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.
In 1868, Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, was impeached. The impeachment came after he was found in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited any president from removing appointed officials without the approval of the senate. Johnson was acquitted during the Senate hearing, and the Tenure of Office Act was later found to be unconstitutional.
The most famous impeachment process in the U.S. took place in 1998. President Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. These charges came about after Clinton was accused of having an affair with a White House intern, and sexually harassing another woman. President Clinton was acquitted of the charges on February 12, 1999.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Acquit – To relieve someone from a criminal charge; to declare not guilty.
- Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
- Chambers – The private office of a judge (or judiciary body) in which the judge may decide to hear matters that should not be discussed in open court.
- Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- Indictment – A formal accusation initiating a criminal case.
- Public Official – An individual in a position of authority that is conferred by a state, such as a person holding a judicial or administrative position, whether appointed or elected.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.