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What is Impeachment?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Impeachment is the legal process of bringing charges against a government official to determine whether he or she can be forcibly removed from office. Despite a common misconception, it is not the removal from office itself, but rather a necessary step towards this removal in many of the world's governments. If the trial following impeachment results in the official's conviction, he or she will be removed from office. However, not every charge leads to a conviction.

Many countries include impeachment in their constitutions, though the particulars may differ. For example, who may be impeached, the body allowed to initiate the proceedings, and the amount of votes required to convict the impeached official may vary. Usually, only a constitutional body has the right to initiate impeachment, and in most cases it is the legislative entity. The process is typically used only in the case of crimes committed by the official in question, not for simple mismanagement or unpopularity. An impeachment trial is similar in format to any other type of legal trial.

In some countries, such as Ireland, only the president may be impeached. In many other countries, any public official is subject to impeachment for crimes committed. In the United States, charges may be brought on both the federal and the state level. State impeachments are governed by individual state constitutions and initiated by state legislative bodies.

Impeachment is fairly rare in today's world. England, for example, has not used it since 1806. It is considered an extreme measure, only to be used in cases of extreme misconduct on the part of the official. Often, the threat of impeachment is enough to make an impact, such as when US President Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 under the threat of impending impeachment.

While 17 federal officers have been impeached in the United States since the country was founded, only seven were removed from office as a direct result of the proceedings. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only presidents to have been impeached, in 1868 and 1998 respectively. The Senate, however, acquitted both men.

Though impeachment is rare, many historians and political analysts argue that most cases are politically driven and even frivolous in retrospect. Nevertheless, it remains a powerful tool to keep the conduct of elected officials above board, even if it is rarely exercised. The mere existence of an impeachment clause in a country's constitution can have an effect on the conduct of its leaders.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Historical Index editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By ElizaBennett — On Aug 31, 2011

I tend to think that presidential impeachment requires a unique combination of circumstances. The figure has to attract an unusual amount of political vitriol even before any wrongdoing comes to light and in most cases, the figure does have to actually have done something wrong. In the case of President Clinton, some people questioned whether his actions were quite bad enough for impeachment; perjury is certainly illegal, but the Constitution seems to envision particularly bad crimes.

Now, in the case of poor Andrew Johnson, he hadn't done anything wrong; the charges against him were particularly manufactured. But the Republicans of the day more than made up for it with extra vitriol.

By miriam98 — On Aug 31, 2011

@allenJo - While there may have been a political component, you have to realize that even some Republicans voted to acquit Clinton in the Senate.

That doesn’t argue one way or another whether it was right or wrong, just that not all Republicans fell in line with wanting to remove him from office. Besides, the impeachment process requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict and remove from office. We rarely have that kind of majority for anything to take place anymore.

By allenJo — On Aug 30, 2011

Some people think that the Clinton impeachment was politically driven, an effort to get back at the Democrats for what they (supposedly) did to Nixon.

Others think that it was a principled position to impeach Clinton, given that he basically perjured himself and famously redefined the word “is” for time immemorial.

One thing is certain; in politics, nothing happens in a vacuum. I personally believe that it is difficult to take so called principled positions in politics because so much of what you do has a political payoff, and even your strategy is too often focus grouped.

That may be cynical on my part but I think that’s the reality of politics today.

By anon45589 — On Sep 18, 2009

Based on Barack Obama's background he should be impeached.

By anon5133 — On Nov 14, 2007

what is the nature of an impeachment trial?

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Historical Index editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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