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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is impeachment?
Impeachment is a formal process by which a public official is charged with misconduct. In the United States, it is a power granted to the House of Representatives to accuse a sitting president, vice president, or other civil officers of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," as outlined in Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. Impeachment itself does not remove the official from office; it is merely the statement of charges, akin to an indictment in criminal law.
How does the impeachment process work?
The impeachment process begins in the House of Representatives, where any member can introduce an impeachment resolution or a charge of misconduct. The House Judiciary Committee usually investigates the allegations, and if they find sufficient grounds, they will draft articles of impeachment. The full House then votes on these articles; if at least one gets a majority vote, the official is impeached. The process then moves to the Senate for a trial, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict and remove the official from office.
Has a U.S. President ever been removed from office through impeachment?
No U.S. President has ever been removed from office through impeachment. While three presidents—Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump—have been impeached by the House of Representatives, none were convicted by the Senate. In each case, the Senate trial resulted in an acquittal, meaning they did not reach the necessary two-thirds majority vote for conviction and removal from office.
What are "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" in the context of impeachment?
"High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is a term from the U.S. Constitution that refers to serious abuses of power by public officials that are not necessarily criminal offenses under ordinary law. The phrase is deliberately broad, allowing Congress to interpret what constitutes an impeachable offense. Historically, it has encompassed corruption, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and other acts of malfeasance that undermine the integrity of public office or the rule of law.
Can a public official be impeached after leaving office?
There is debate among scholars about whether a public official can be impeached after leaving office. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly address this scenario, but there is precedent for post-term impeachments in American history. For example, in 1876, Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached by the House after he had resigned, although he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate. The rationale for post-term impeachment is to prevent the official from holding future office and to formally condemn their conduct.