The Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment

Impeachment has been in the air, to one degree or another, since Donald J. Trump took office. Much of it has come from his political opponents and ordinary citizens, disapproving of his conduct while serving as President of the United States.

However, since the public release of the Mueller Report on April 18, 2019, talk of impeachment has reached a fevered pitch, and for good reason.

There’s strong and objective arguments to be made for impeachment. However, this particular article will delve into the history, process, and implications of impeachment.

Constitutional History


In 1787, the founders debated over the design of the federal government at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. They formed a federal government comprised of three co-equal branches: the legislative (Congress), the executive (Presidency), and the judicial (Supreme Court).

The founders were fearful of the ramifications of having a corrupt, immoral figure clothed with the immense power of the presidency. In fact, they were so concerned with the potential of a tyrannical leader, they discussed the idea of impeachment before they even formed the constitutional basis for the presidency (Article II of the U.S. Constitution).

The founders agreed upon a set of criteria for what would would constitute an impeachable offense. This is described in Article II (i.e. executive branch), Section IV of the constitution:

“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.”

The language used by the founders is meant to be ambiguous to a degree, ensuring future generations would have a constitutional foundation to build upon to suit the needs of the times.

Impeachment Process: The House


Congress has a constitutional responsibility to provide oversight over the presidency –it’s part of the “checks and balances” every American child learns about in school. The United States Constitution was designed so each branch would have the power to check and balance the other branches.

The impeachment process is initiated in the House of Representatives. If there’s suspicion or evidence that the president may have committed an impeachable offence(s) –as described in the constitution– there are two ways the House can initiate impeachment proceedings: (1) an individual House member could formally issue a resolution for impeachment, or (2) the “House could initiate proceedings by passing a resolution authorizing impeachment.1” The latter is more likely to occur than the former.

In modern history, the Judiciary Committee has been the congressional committee authorized to initiate impeachment proceedings. If the committee decides the charges against the president are worthy, the committee advises the House majority leader (i.e. the Speaker of the House). It’s then up to the House majority leader to bring the articles of impeachment to the House floor for a vote. A majority vote is required to pass the articles of impeachment.2 If more than 50% of House members vote in favor of impeachment, then the proceedings move up to the Senate.

Impeachment Process: The Senate


Once the House passes the articles of impeachment, the Senate will subsequently conduct a trial. The trial has all the trappings of a traditional legal trial: there’s a team of prosecutors and a team of defense attorneys, with each side using cross-examination and the calling of witnesses, among other legal methods.

The House appoints members who act as prosecutors. These members are traditionally from the House Judiciary Committee. The president has the right to appoint his own attorneys to mount a defense. The impeachment proceedings are presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.3 And it’s the members of the Senate who act as the jury.

When the trial has concluded, the Senate will typically convene in private –just as a traditional jury does. In order to convict the president, a two-thirds “supermajority” is required. Since the Senate is comprised of 100 Senators, this means 67 Senators would have to vote to convict. If the supermajority is reached, the president is automatically removed from office.

Conclusions


The process of impeaching a president is essentially a two-step process. The House votes to pass articles of impeachment, which is akin to an indictment. The Senate then holds a trial with appointed House members acting as the prosecution and the president’s personally-appointed lawyers acting as the defense. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the presiding judge, and the Senators are the jury.

It’s possible for a president to be impeached, but not convicted. In fact, the two former presidents –Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998)– to have articles of impeachment passed against them were not convicted by the Senate and therefore remained in power. President Richard Nixon evaded the impeachment process by resigning in 1974.

While the impeachment process requires grounds for treason, bribery, high crimes (i.e. felonies), and/or misdemeanors, it’s a political process and not a criminal process. This means even if a president is convicted in the Senate, they will not be criminally charged and sentenced. The ultimate fate of a convicted president is removal from office. There is, however, still the possibility of criminal charges being filed against a president once the the president returns to being an ordinary citizen.


References

  1. History of Impeachment – The Official House of Representatives Website
  2. How the Impeachment Process Works – The New York Times
  3. Impeaching a President – The Law Dictionary (thelawdictionary.org)   

Correction: The original version of this article had an incorrect release date for the Mueller Report (April 14, 2019). The report was released to the public on April 18, 2019.

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