Impeachment: How the Constitution Protects us from Corruption

The Constitution provides a mechanism to remove a bad actor, namely a federal judge or the president. This process is called impeachment and it has been topical as of late as it occurred earlier this year when President Trump was impeached. Being impeached does not mean that a person is removed from office. The term impeachment only means being charged with a “high crime or misdemeanor.” In fact, never in the history of the United States has a president been removed from office after being impeached. Only 17 federal judges have been impeached with eight being found guilty and removed from the bench (several also resigned before the proceedings were over).

The Constitution states that, “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.” This is quite vague, and charges can vary greatly. In the early days of the republic, a judge was impeached on charges of “intoxication on the bench and unlawful handling of property claims.” In modern times, charges range from “lying under oath” to most recently, “abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.” The Constitution also specifies that a president cannot pardon themself, nor others, in cases of impeachment.

Impeachment works like a court case. The House of Representatives is like a grand jury. They draw up the articles of impeachment, outlying what the official is being charged with. This could come in the form of several charges which are voted on individually. All it takes is a simple majority in the House to pass articles of impeachment. The trial then moves to the Senate. There, each senator is like a member of a jury. The Chief Justice of the United States presides over the trial in the case that the president is impeached. A delegation of the House, known as House Managers, act as the prosecution while the accused will usually bring in their own defense team. Just like a normal trial, witnesses can be called upon to testify. The full Senate is present when a president is impeached however, since 1986, this is not always the case for federal judges. Sometimes the Senate will instead form a trial committee that will hear the evidence and report the findings to the full Senate before a vote.

It takes two-thirds of the Senate to vote to convict. The Constitution says that the only penalties that can come from conviction are removal from office and disbarment from future public office. While removal from office has historically always been imposed for individuals found guilty, disbarment is not always applied. In fact, Alcee Hastings, a federal judge who was found guilty and removed from office in 1989, went on to serve as a Congressman from Florida. Impeachment also does not make individuals immune from being criminally charged for the same things that led to their impeachment.

Only three presidents have every been impeached. In 1867, Andrew Johnson was charged with violating a law that many considered unconstitutional, among 10 other counts. Many believe that the law was actually created to trap him. He was spared from being removed from office by just one vote. Then, in 1999, President Clinton was charged with lying under oath and obstruction of justice. He was also acquitted on both of those charged. Earlier this year, President Trump was charged with obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. He too was saved from removal. It is commonly thought that President Nixon was impeached. This was not that case as he resigned before any charges could be brought upon him.