How does impeachment work? – Alex Gendler
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How does impeachment work? – Alex Gendler


For most jobs, it’s understood
that you can be fired, whether for crime, incompetence, or just poor performance. But what if your job happens to be
the most powerful position in the country, or the world? That’s where impeachment comes in. Impeachment isn’t the same
as actually removing someone from office. Like an indictment in criminal court, it’s only the formal accusation
that launches a trial, which could end in conviction
or acquittal. Originating in the United Kingdom, impeachment allowed Parliament to vote for
removing a government official from office even without the king’s consent. Although this was an important check
on royal power, the king couldn’t be impeached because the monarch was considered
the source of all government power. But for the founders
of the American Republic, there was no higher authority
beyond the people themselves. And so impeachment was adopted in
the United States as a power of Congress applying to any civil officers,
up to and including the president. Although demands for impeachment
can come from any members of the public, only the House of Representatives has the
power to actually initiate the process. It begins by referring the matter
to a committee, usually the House Committee on Rules and the House Committee on the Judiciary. These committees review the accusations, examine the evidence, and issue a recommendation. If they find sufficient
grounds to proceed, the House holds a separate vote
on each of the specific charges, known as Articles of Impeachment. If one or more passes
by a simple majority, the official is impeached
and the stage is set for trial. The actual trial that follows impeachment
is held in the Senate. Selected members of the House,
known as managers, act as the prosecution, while the impeached official
and their lawyers present their defense. The Senate acts as both judge and jury, conducting the trial and deliberating
after hearing all the arguments. If it’s the president or vice president
being impeached, the chief justice
of the Supreme Court presides. A conviction requires a supermajority
of two-thirds and results in automatic removal
from power. Depending on the original charges, it can also disqualify them
from holding office in the future and open them to standard
criminal prosecution. So what exactly can get someone impeached? That’s a bit more complicated. Unlike in the United Kingdom, impeachment in the U.S.
pits an elected legislature against other democratically
elected members of government. Therefore, to prevent the process
from being used as a political weapon, the Constitution specifies that
an official can only be impeached for treason, bribery, or other high crimes
and misdemeanors. That still leaves a lot of room
for interpretation, not to mention politics, and many impeachment trials
have split along partisan lines. But the process is generally understood to
be reserved for serious abuses of power. The first official to be impeached was
Tennesse Senator William Blount in 1797 for conspiring with Britain to cease
the Spanish colony of Louisiana. Since then, the House has launched
impeachment investigations about 60 times, but only 19 have led to actual
impeachment proceedings. The eight cases that ended
in a conviction and removal from office were all federal judges. And impeachment of a sitting president
is even more rare. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 for attempting to replace Secretary of War
Edwin Stanton without consulting the Senate. Over a century later, Bill Clinton
was impeached for making false statements under oath
during a sexual harassment trial. Both were ultimately acquitted
when the Senate’s votes to convict fell short of the required
two-thirds majority. And contrary to popular belief, Richard Nixon was never actually impeached
for the Watergate scandal. He resigned before it could happen knowing he would almost certainly
be convicted. Theoretically, the U.S. government is
already designed to prevent abuses of power, limiting different branches
through a system of checks and balances, term limits, and free elections. But impeachment can be seen
as an emergency brake for when these safeguards fail.

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