3-Minute Civics: An impeachment primer

For the Monitor
Published: 10/20/2019 7:30:08 AM

The term “impeachment” is in the news daily these days, and it’s not going away anytime soon. But what does that term really mean? Who is eligible to be impeached, and on what grounds? What are the rules? Who decides? What are the consequences of being impeached? And where is this all spelled out, anyway?

Let’s cover the basics – or at least lay enough of a foundation in 800 or so words to understand the news stories in the days ahead.

The term “impeachment” has become shorthand for what is actually a two-step process. It’s a political remedy – not a criminal one – established in the Constitution to remove from office certain senior officials of the United States government who have committed improper acts.

With me so far? Let’s get into some details.

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution says: “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.”

Who are we talking about? Only 19 people have been impeached in the history of our country. Two were presidents – Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 – and most of the others were judges. (President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid impending impeachment.) Because the news these days is focusing on a president, let’s keep the conversation simple and stick with that.

But I remember history class (and actual history), and Presidents Johnson and Clinton weren’t kicked out of office. You’re correct. That’s because they were impeached, but not convicted. Keep reading.

How does impeachment work? The (very broad) outlines for impeachment are set forth in Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution. Impeachment proceedings take place in the House of Representatives. There is no clearly proscribed manner or time frame in which this needs to take place. Generally, one or more House committees conducts an inquiry to determine if there is sufficient evidence to bring articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote.

If the evidence is deemed sufficient, the articles of impeachment make their way to the House floor, and if the House votes in favor of one or more articles by a majority vote, the president is impeached.

But impeachment is really just stage one. Impeachment functions much like an indictment, and an impeached official still holds his or her office. After a successful impeachment vote, Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution says that trials for impeached officials take place in the Senate. A team of House members acts as prosecutors, and the impeached official, as the defendant, is represented by legal counsel.

The chief justice of the United States presides while the Senate acts as the jury; the prosecutors present evidence, the defense can cross-examine and present its own case.

What was that you said about an “inquiry?” This is one of the undefined aspects of impeachment. In the Nixon and Clinton cases, the full House voted to refer the impeachment matter to the House Judiciary Committee for investigation or “inquiry.” In Nixon’s case, that committee conducted its own investigation before drafting impeachment articles, while the committee decided to rely on a special prosecutor’s investigation in the Clinton matter.

There are no set rules setting forth how the House has to go about the impeachment process. In reality, the party holding the majority will be able to make this determination.

What can a president be impeached for? I get bribery and treason, but what exactly does “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” mean? The first thing to note is that articles of impeachment don’t have to consist of actual crimes. Impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one, and Congress has wide latitude to determine what constitutes a political offense.

We and Congress can look to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper 65 for guidance, in which he referred to: “Those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust … they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Impeachable offenses have generally been interpreted to mean violations of one’s oath of office or other serious abuses of power that may or may not have been actual crimes under law. Or, put another way, they are what Congress says they are.

What are the consequences of impeachment? At the end of the trial, the jury votes. If two-thirds of the senators vote for conviction, the president is removed from office and the vice president becomes president. Note that if any of the impeachable offenses involved actual criminal behavior, charges would need to be prosecuted as separate proceedings in the criminal justice system in order for any criminal penalties to be applied.

In summary, impeachment is a constitutional, political process. In may involve actual criminal activity, but it may not.

The Founders included impeachment in the Constitution as a safety valve they hoped would be needed and used rarely but wisely. Understanding what impeachment is and isn’t – as well as how it works – will help everyone in the days and months ahead.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)




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