Impeachment

Part of writing a constitution is anticipating future problems and providing tools to address those problems.  One of the most prominent examples of this in the U.S. Constitution is the power and process of Impeachment.  The impeachment process is a power built into the U.S. Constitution and vested in Congress. It is a tool designed to hold government officials accountable for their actions and serves as an additional safeguard against the abuse of power. Impeachment is also a fundamental aspect of the American government's system of checks and balances.  

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Table of contents

    The Definition of Impeachment

    Impeachment is a process in which the United States House of Representatives initiates charges against a government official, which can include the sitting president, vice president, or any other civil officer, for breaking the law or conducting themselves inappropriately. The process often leads to a trial held in the Senate.

    Civil officer

    A civil officer is a government appointee authorized to carry out the duties laid out in the Constitution or other official documents. Civil officers may work at the federal, state, or local levels. Civil officers include the president, vice president, judge, senator, member of Congress, and sheriffs.

    Trump Impeachment StudySmarter

    Impeachment Vote During Trumps Second Impeachment. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

    The Impeachment Process

    In the United States, the House of Representatives is responsible for launching the impeachment process, while the senate functions as the court where the impeachment trial is held.

    How the Process Works

    When the House of Representatives discovers evidence of impeachable conduct, the impeachment process starts. The impeachment evidence is sent to a committee, typically the Rules Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. The committees examine the reasons behind the impeachment request and any evidence presented and decide whether or not to recommend impeachment. If the committees determine that there is sufficient evidence to move forward in the process, the House of Representatives conducts a vote. If a majority vote is received, the impeachment becomes official and the trial can begin. The House of Representatives then sends the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate.

    The public can request an impeachment but the House of Representatives has the sole constitutional authority to impeach.

    Impeachment Process Timeline

    The House of Representatives impeaches a Civil officer

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    House Committees justify the impeachment using evidence. Their conclusions are sent to the Judiciary Committee

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    The Judiciary Committee determines whether or not the evidence is adequate. If it is determined that the evidence doesn’t support impeachment, the case is dismissed, and the civil officer returns to their position. If the committee finds sufficient evidence to support impeachment, the Articles of Impeachment or officially documented charges are sent to the entire House of Representatives.

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    The House of Representatives votes on whether or not to impeach

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    If a majority (51% or more) votes to impeach, the impeachment becomes official. If a majority is not reached, the case is dismissed, and the civil officer resumes their leadership role.

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    The impeachment moves to the Senate.

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    The Senate votes on whether or not to dismiss the case. If the case is dismissed, the civil officer can resume their position. If the Senate supports going to trial, the Senate impeachment trial begins.

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    After the Senate impeachment trial, the Senate votes on whether or not to convict.

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    If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the civil officer must vacate their office and may face additional charges in criminal court. If less than two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the civil officer is acquitted and retains their position.

    Senate Impeachment Trial

    Senate impeachment trials are conducted like a typical criminal trial, but the Senate serves as the jury, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as the judge, trial managers serve as prosecutors, and the legal team of the accused as the defense. The impeachment process varies from a week or two weeks to several months. If the impeached official is the president or vice-president, the Supreme Court’s chief justice oversees the trial. Two-thirds of the Senate must convict the accused for the individual to be removed from office. If convicted, they are ousted immediately. A convicted official can be barred from holding future office and may face additional criminal charges.

    Impeachment Managers

    Impeachment managers are members of the House of Representatives that serve in the role of prosecutor. The Speaker of the House usually selects them. Impeachment managers are tasked with prosecuting the case against the impeached individual, calling witnesses, and answering questions from the defense team of the impeached official.

    Impeachment in the Constitution

    The Constitution discusses the matter of impeachment directly. It states that if an impeached president is voted out by the Senate due to treason, offering bribes, high crimes, or other misdemeanors, they must leave office. Other offenses that lead to impeachment leave room for interpretation, and Congress must decide what qualifies for launching an impeachment process. The Constitution provides insight into the impeachment process in Article I, Sections 2 and 3, where it states:

    The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all impeachments…no person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present.

    Impeachment History

    The original framers of the United States Constitution adopted the impeachment process from England, where the British Parliament had the power and authority to vote a government member out of office without the king's approval. However, in England, the king was exempt from impeachment because he was regarded as an all-powerful leader from which the laws originated. The United States was founded without a king or ruling family built into the government system, with more power resting with the people. As a result, government officials, no matter their status, are not exempt from impeachment.

    Did you know that the power to impeach, which rests in the hands of the United States Congress, is a key aspect of the American system of "checks and balances"?

    William Blount sketch - StudySmarter

    Portrait of American statesman William Blount (1749–1800), reproduced from an etching by Albert Rosenthal. The United States Public Domain

    Examples of Impeachment

    Throughout U.S. history, impeachments have been fairly rare. However, a handful of high-profile impeachments have occurred over the years. This next section will highlight the most significant ones.

    The First Impeachment

    Senator William Blount from Tennessee was the first government official to be impeached in the United States. His impeachment took place in 1797. He was accused of working with England to take control of Louisiana, which, at the time, was under the authority of Spain. Since Blount’s impeachment, more than 60 impeachments have taken place, 19 of which resulted in senate impeachment trials, and eight ended with civil officers being removed from office. All of the removed officials have been federal judges.

    Presidential Impeachments

    Presidential impeachments are rare, and a president has never been removed as a result of impeachment. Only three U.S. presidents have faced impeachment trials: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. All three were acquitted of their alleged crimes before the Senate.

    In 1974, Richard Nixon was on the verge of being impeached and resigned before going through the impeachment hearing and trial.

    Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached in 1868. He was accused of trying to replace Secretary of War Edwin Stanton without discussing it with the Senate.

    President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 for lying under oath during a trial for sexual harassment. Both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted, and neither president was removed from office.

    Donald J. Trump was the first president to face two impeachment trials. His first impeachment occurred in 2019 for “abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.” He was accused of pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to share inside information about political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, the latter of whom had been employed by a Ukrainian energy firm. Trump was accused of making military aid to Ukraine contingent on receiving this information. He was charged with abusing power and attempting to use a foreign leader to interfere with the democratic election process.

    During Trump’s second impeachment, he was accused of encouraging rebellion in connection with the security breach and protests at the Capitol building in January 2021.

    Impeachment - Key takeaways

    • Impeachment is when the House of Representatives formally cites a civil officer for breaking the law. It is a practice that is outlined in the Constitution.

    • Impeachment involves a review by the House of Representatives and if it is determined to be a valid accusation, an impeachment trial before the Senate.

    • If the Senate votes to convict the accused with a 2/3 majority, the civil officer will be removed from his or her position.

    • The power to impeach is a key aspect of the American system of "checks and balances."

    • Three U.S. presidents have been impeached. None have been removed from office.

    • Impeachment adds an additional check on leadership and is designed to prevent the abuse of power.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Impeachment

    What is impeachment?

    A process in which the United States House of Representatives initiates charges against a government official, which can include the sitting president, vice president, or any other civil officer, for breaking the law or conducting themselves inappropriately.  

    Which government body is vested by the Constitution with the power to impeach?

    The United States House of Representatives

    Which committees are involved in the impeachment process?

    The Rules Committee and the House Judiciary Committee

    How does the impeachment move to the Senate?

    If a majority (51%)of members of the House of Representatives vote to impeach.

    What role does the Senate play in an impeachment?

    The jury

    What role do impeachment managers play?

    Prosecutors

    How many votes are needed in the Senate to convict?

    Two-thirds of the votes in the Senate are needed to convict

    Has a sitting president ever been convicted?

    No. But three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald J. Trump (twice)

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