When I first started this essay series, I really had no real understanding of what an Impeachment meant. I assumed that it was akin to governmental criminal trial, that you weren’t “impeached” till they found you guilty. And that it was only for Presidents.
Most of that was wrong. Reading the mentions in Article One’s sections 2 & 3 had me doing some research into what exactly is an impeachment and what is the result of it. Turns out it was a lot different then the image I had in my head.
Impeachments are basically administrative reviews in our government. This is one of the many governmental transfers from our time as a colony of Great Britian, where impeachment was a power of Parliament. A committee is formed in the House to look into and investigate claims that are impeachable offenses (which honestly tend to be a little vague and on occasion partisan). After the investigation, the House can either decide there isn’t any evidence (or perhaps not enough) or they feel there is enough and Impeach the person in question. So basically being ‘impeached’ is being accused of doing something that goes against the office you hold, or laws.
Once the House impeaches the officer, it then goes over to the Senate. Impeachments are supposed to be high priority over any other business the Senate might be looking into, and they prepare to hear the evidence on the impeachment. In order to be found guilty, the Senate must vote with a 2/3 majority.
There have been several impeachments over the years, the most known are probably the 2 presidential impeachments: Andrew Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton. Also within the Watergate Scandal, Impeachment was implied.
In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House for breaking the Tenure of Office Act, which had been passed the year before overriding Johnson’s veto. The law restricted the President’s ability to remove office holders (like cabinet members) from office without the okay of Congress. This was also part of an ongoing feud between him and congress over the reconstruction plan for the south. The President wanted to accept all the states back immediately while Congress preferred to wait and have them under military law till they proved they could be loyal. (personally, I side with Johnson on this). Johnson wanted to remove his Secretary of War, who was a Republican and indicted under Lincoln’s tenure. When he did, the House began to investigate him for breaking the law. This law would later be thrown out by the Supreme Court and later Congress in 1887 itself for being unconstitutional. He ended up being acquitted and going on to serve as Senator before his death in 1885.
Bill Clinton’s Impeachment trial is probably more familiar to more of us, as it happened only recently in history. Clinton was impeached by the House on December 18, 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice brought on by an investigation by Ken Starr into the President’s behavior during a recent sex assault trial brought by one of Clinton’s former employees.. The trial was hotly debated and Clinton ended up being acquitted by a single vote.
Richard Nixon was never impeached, although it is considered that had he not resigned and turned over the office to Gerald Ford (who pardoned him) he would have had to go through an impeachment trial. So in effect, his presidency was ended by the threat of impeachment rather then the impeachment itself.
So that explains why I knew of it as being a way to remove a President from office. But it turns out its a way to remove other governmental officials from office. There have been 19 federal impeachments. The Majority of those impeached by the House of Representatives were judges. Only four were not. These were the aforementioned Presidents, a Cabinet Secretary and a US Senator. Only 8 of the 19 were convicted, the rest were acquitted.
Notable impeachments include:
- William Blount, a US Senator in 1799. He was the first person tried by the Senate on impeachment and was acquitted as the Senate decided that they didn;t have jurisdiction in this matter as members of the house and Senate did not classify as officers and also because both houses had the option to remove members of their own house by 2/3rds vote.
- John Pickering, a judge in 1804. He was the second impeachment, and the first to be found guilty of the charges and removed from office.
- William Belknap, a former Secratary of War in 1876. Was acquitted because the Senate believed that due to his retirement, they did not have jurisdiction.
- Alcee Hastings, a judge in 1989. Hastings was found guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for taking a 150,000 bribe for reducing the sentencing of people who came before him in court. Earlier these charges had been put against him in criminal court and he was acquitted of them. However the House wasn’t as sure, and impeached him with over 17 articles of impeachment. He was removed from office. However, he was not banned from public office and later served as a representative. Ironically, he was able to vote in Clinton’s impeachment trial during his time in the Senate.
- G. Thomas Porteous, Jr. A judge in 2010. Porteous was the most recent Impeachment by the Senate. He was found guilty of taking bribes form lawyers while overseeing their cases. He was removed from office.
An impeachment trial does not end up like a criminal case does. They are only given the power to remove a person from their position in the government and disqualify them from future office, not to sentence them for their crimes, which would have to be seen to under a civilian criminal court.
During most cases, the Vice President resides over the trial as leader of the Senate. However, during Presidential impeachments it is left to the Chief Justice. The prosecutors are members of the House, choose to represent them in the case. The Senate acts like the jury.
The House has looked into over 60 impeachments, but only 19 have actually been passed on to the Senate.
The Impeachment of Bill Clinton (Wikipedia)
Impeachment in the United States (Wikipedia)
The Impeachment Trial of Alcee L. Hastings (Senate.gov)
Briefing on Impeachment (Senate.gov)
Complete list of Impeachment trials by Federal Senate (Senate.gov (same link as above, only more specific)
Impeachment: US House of Representatives (House.gov)