Impeachment: A primer
(AllPolitics, Sept. 14) -- If the House Judiciary Committee institutes impeachment hearings, it would then have to decide what constitutes an impeachable offense. The U.S. Constitution says a president can be removed from office if he committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." It does not, however, provide any guidance as to what "high crimes and misdemeanors" are or what the burden of proof might be.
If hearings are held, they could result in an impeachment resolution and accompanying articles of impeachment that would then go to the full House. It's at this point that the Constitution and history begin providing a clearer roadmap of the impeachment process. | Searchable U.S. Constitution Web site
A formal accusation
Impeachment is the act of formally accusing a public official of crimes or serious misconduct. Under the Constitution, the power to impeach lies with the House of Representatives. The Senate conducts any trial that might result from an impeachment.
An official found guilty of impeachable offenses is subject to removal from office and disqualification from holding other federal posts.
Over the years, the House has issued articles of impeachment against 15 federal officials [complete list], 14 of whom went to trial in the Senate. In seven of those cases, the Senate voted to convict.
No president has ever been convicted in an impeachment trial, but two have come close.
Andrew Johnson's Close Call
Andrew Johnson took the oath of office as president on April 15, 1865, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His tenure at the White House was troubled almost from the beginning. When Johnson tried to force out Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1867 for conspiring with his political enemies, radical Republicans began moving for impeachment.
Their first attempt, in December 1867, failed, but on Feb. 24, 1868, they succeeded. The House passed a resolution of impeachment and followed that up by issuing 11 articles detailing the charges against the president. Foremost among them was the largely political charge that Johnson had violated the recently-passed Tenure of Service Act in the Stanton affair.
The Senate trial opened on March 5, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. It lasted three weeks. Johnson never appeared. In the end, the Senate court came close to convicting him on three of the charges, but in each case fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority.
The fall of Richard Nixon
By the fall of 1973, the Watergate scandal was crippling the Nixon White House and calls for the president's impeachment were becoming increasingly common. Nixon had raised public suspicions by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox and many Americans were beginning to believe that the president was personally involved in a coverup of the 1972 Watergate break-in. The House of Representatives responded by telling the Judiciary Committee to open an impeachment investigation.
The Judiciary Committee completed its investigation in the summer of 1974. In late July it adopted three articles of impeachment against Nixon. The first article, which related to the Watergate break-in, charged the president with obstruction of justice.
Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before the full House could vote on impeachment and before the Senate had a chance to take any action. His successor, Gerald Ford, later pardoned Nixon for any and all crimes he may have committed in office, removing the possibility that the former president would face a criminal trial.
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Impeachment: A primer
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