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English Words in the News: Impeachment Posted by on Nov 21, 2019 in Culture, News

Image courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

If you’ve been following the news, and it’s been hard to miss it, the United States is currently dealing with the fourth presidential impeachment inquiry in its history. Remarkably few American citizens actually know exactly what impeachment means, and how it works. Putting aside the politics of the moment, let’s take a look at the word impeach, its history, and what it all means.

Impeach is a transitive verb meaning: to charge with a crime or misdemeanor. Now, I need to add that this definition is true particularly in the US. Elsewhere in the world, it may simply mean: to cast doubt or suspicion upon someone. Impeachment is a noun meaning the process of impeaching someone. That is, stating the formal reasons for a trial to remove someone from a government office to which that person was either elected or appointed. Most nations have different rules and criteria for impeachment, as well as laws stating who may be impeached.

Because federal judges in the US are appointed to office, it requires a formal impeachment to remove them from office, just as elected members of Congress and, yes, presidents may also be impeached. Also, each state has different laws regarding their impeachment rules. But, yes, state-wide officeholders such as governors, judges, and legislators may be impeached.

However, impeachment does not mean removal from office. Impeachment begins with an inquiry process. This process explores the allegations and complaints against someone. It seeks to understand the reasons to impeach. To date, fifteen federal judges, one cabinet secretary, and one US Senator have been impeached. Only eight were convicted and removed from office, all judges.

Only four presidents have ever faced an impeachment inquiry – Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974, Bill Clinton in 1998, and Donald Trump. Nixon resigned before a formal impeachment vote was taken. Johnson and Clinton were acquitted (found innocent).

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

The US Constitution grants the US House of Representatives with “…the sole power of impeachment.” Various House committees send their findings to the House Judiciary Committee. The members of that committee then decide whether to proceed with writing formal articles of impeachment. To be impeached, a president must have committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” While the exact definition of the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is debatable, we have some clear guidance by one of the men who was in the room when the Constitution was drafted.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton stated that high crimes and misdemeanors result ” from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Hamilton added, “They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” In the case of Clinton, for example, legal scholars argued that he may have been guilty of perjury, but only of a private matter. While many disagreed, not enough could be persuaded.

To Be Impeached

Once the articles of impeachment have been drafted, the full House of Representatives votes to pass one or more impeachment articles on to the US Senate for an impeachment trial. If they vote yes, then the President has been formally impeached.

A team of House members will serve as prosecutors, arguing why the president should be removed from office. The president will have his own lawyers and may call as many witnesses as he wishes. During the trial in the Senate, members are to remain silent, with no access to phones or other outside distractions. There is no time limit on how long the trial may last. A two-thirds majority of the Senate is needed for a conviction or, at least 70 votes. If only 31 out of 100 senators vote in favor of the president, then he remains in office.

Impeachment is not to be taken lightly. The Founding Fathers, as the members of the Constitutional Convention of 17871https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-constitution-amendments/the-constitutional-convention/ are known, intended it to be difficult. It is stressful for the nation. These are difficult times. But we have been here before.


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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.