History Podcasts

Impeachment

Impeachment

Impeachment is the process that enables a legislative body to remove a public official from office. It comprises two parts: (1) an accusation or indictment and (2) a trial.

This practice has roots in English constitutional history. Members of Parliament employed impeachment against royally appointed Stuart officials in the 1600s. The concept was brought to the American colonies, where legislative assemblies used it against royal officials. Few other countries have provisions for impeachment.

The Constitution of the United States (Text) makes the following provisions for the impeachment of federal officials:

Article I, Section 2
Clause 5: The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Article I, Section 3
Clause 6: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Clause 7: Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party, (defendant), convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

Under this two-part procedure, the House of Representatives is charged with initiating the process by bringing articles of impeachment against an accused official. The Senate, in turn, tries the accused on the charges provided by the House. Few guidelines exist for these Senate trials. If the President has been impeached, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is designated to preside; the Vice-President has presided in all other instances.

A two-thirds vote of the Senate is necessary to convict and remove the official from office. Those so convicted are barred from holding federal office in the future.

No rule prevents the impeachment of members of the House or Senate, but that action has never been successfully taken.

The Constitution also makes reference to those offenses deemed to be impeachable:

Article II, Section 4
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.

Treason and bribery are usually clearly understood concepts, but "high crimes and misdemeanors" are open to a wide latitude of interpretation. Some constitutional scholars have argued that only criminal offenses meet that standard, but others have maintained that a simple breach of the public trust is sufficient.

During the Constitutional Convention, some of the Framers urged that "maladministration" be added to the list of impeachable offenses. Others wisely opposed that addition, fearing that impeachment might become a trivial political matter.

The following table summarizes the handful of impeachments that have occurred. This remedy has been used primarily against federal judges, who are lifetime appointees and do not stand for election.

Federal Official

Position

Date

Result
William Blount

U.S. Senator
Tennessee

January 14, 1799

Lack of jurisdiction led to dismissal of charges.
John Pickering

U.S. District Judge District of New Hampshire

March 12, 1804

Removed from office.
Samuel Chase

Associate Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

March 1, 1805

Acquitted.

James H. Peck

U.S. District Judge District of Missouri

January 31, 1831

Acquitted.
West H. Humphreys

U.S. District Judge District of Tennessee

June 26, 1862

Removed from office.
Andrew Johnson

President
of the United States

May 26, 1868

Acquitted.
William H. Belknap

Secretary of War

August 1, 1876

Acquitted.
Charles Swayne

U.S. District Judge District of Northern Florida

February 27, 1905

Acquitted.
Robert W. Archbald

Associate Judge
U.S. Commerce Court

January 13, 1913

Removed from office.
George W. English

U.S. District Judge Eastern District of Illinois

November 4, 1926

Resigned from office; dismissed.
Harold Louderback

U.S. District Judge Northern District of California

May 24, 1933

Acquitted.
Halsted L. Ritter

U.S. District Judge Southern District of Florida

April 17, 1936

Removed from Office.
Henry E. Claiborne

U.S. District Judge District of Nevada

October 9, 1986

Removed from office.
Alcee L. Hastings

U.S. District Judge Southern District of Florida

October 20, 1988

Removed from office.
Walter L. Nixon Jr.

U.S. District Judge Southern District of Mississippi

November 3, 1989

Removed from office.
William J. Clinton

President
of the United States

February 12, 1999

Acquitted.