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A process that is used to charge, try, and remove public officials for misconduct while in office.

Impeachment is a fundamental constitutional power belonging to Congress. This safeguard against corruption can be initiated against federal officeholders from the lowest cabinet member, all the way up to the president and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Besides providing the authority for impeachment, the U.S. Constitution details the methods to be used. The two-stage process begins in the House of Representatives with a public inquiry into allegations. It culminates, if necessary, with a trial in the Senate. State constitutions model impeachment processes for state officials on this approach. At both the federal and state levels, impeachment is rare: From the passage of the Constitution to the mid-1990s, only 50 impeachment proceedings were initiated, and only a third of these went as far as a trial in the Senate. The reluctance of lawmakers to use this power is a measure of its gravity; it is generally only invoked by evidence of criminality or substantial abuse of power.

The roots of impeachment date to ancient Athens. Its place in the U.S. Constitution was secured by the influence of English Common Law on the Framers of the Constitution. Originally, any English subject, politician, or ruler could institute impeachment charges in Parliament. By the fourteenth century, this power became the exclusive domain of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In 1776, the American colonies included much of the English tradition in state constitutions, but the delegates of the Constitutional Convention hotly debated how best to embody it in the federal Constitution. Their most contentious question was over the offenses that should be considered impeachable.

A Challenge to Impeachment

In 1989, federal judge Alcee Hastings was removed from the bench by a Senate vote, becoming the first judge in U.S. history to be impeached after being acquitted in a criminal trial. Hastings vigorously proclaimed his innocence, challenged the proceedings in court, and alleged that racism drove the proceedings.

An appointee of President jimmy carter, Hastings joined the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida as its first African American judge in 1979. In 1981, federal prosecutors indicted him on conspiracy to accept a bribe from a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent posing as a defendant in a case before him. They charged Attorney William A. Borders, president of the National Bar Association, with offering the agent a lenient sentence from Hastings in exchange for $150,000. Borders was convicted in 1982. Hastings was acquitted in February 1983.

Hastings's troubles soon deepened. In April 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit set in motion a three-year investigation into charges that Hastings had manufactured evidence for his defense. The probe concluded that he was guilty, and in March 1987, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended impeachment. The House of Representatives agreed. On August 3, 1988, the full House voted 413–3 to send the case to the Senate with seventeen Articles of Impeachment, including false testimony, fabrication of false records, and improper disclosure of confidential law enforcement information.

Hastings brought suit, seeking a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Hastings v. United States Senate, 716 F. Supp. 38 [1989]). In his three-part complaint, Hastings claimed that (1) the impeachment hearing was procedurally flawed because his trial would be conducted by committee and not by the full body of the Senate; (2) the impeachment hearings violated his Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy rights against a second prosecution for the same crime; and (3) he was being denied effective counsel and was entitled to attorneys' fees.

The suit failed. U.S. district judge Gerhard Gesell held that (1) rule XI of the governing Rules of Procedure and Practice in the Senate When Sitting on Impeachment authorizes a committee format but does not prevent the full participation of the Senate; (2) double jeopardy principles did not apply in this case because impeachment is not a criminal proceeding and because Hastings faced separate impeachment charges; and (3) no statute provides for attorneys' fees.

In August 1989, the Senate panel heard twenty-four days of testimony. On October 20, it convicted Hastings on eight of the impeachment articles and removed him from office. Hastings left the bench continuing to profess his innocence, attacking the Senate's handling of evidence, and maintaining that he was the victim of racism.


Double Jeopardy.

The result of the Framers' debate was a compromise: They borrowed language from English common law but adapted the grounds of impeachment. These grounds are specified in Article II, Section 4: "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 choice of the phrase "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" left the exact definition of impeachable offenses open to interpretation by Congress. It has invited considerable debate, but it is generally read to mean both indictable offenses and other serious noncriminal misconduct. The latter has included corruption, dereliction of constitutional duty, and violation of limitations on the power of an office. Under the Constitution, federal judges are held to the most exacting standard: They may remain on the bench only "during good Behavior" (art. III, sec. 1).

How Will the Trial of Bill Clinton Affect Future Impeachments?

Impeachment, the constitutional method for removing presidents, judges, and other federal officers who commit "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," requires a majority vote by the House of Representatives, and then conviction by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. President William Jefferson Clinton's impeachment trial was the fifteenth in U.S. history, and the second of a president. Andrew Johnson, the other president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, was acquitted by the Senate in 1868 in a vote that mostly followed party lines. Especially in light of prior impeachments, seven of which ended with the removal of federal judges, Clinton's case will affect the future use of impeachment, the process of impeachment, and the definition of "high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Clinton's experience, like Johnson's, shows that impeachment can be a tool of political warfare. Although the U.S. Constitution only requires a House majority for impeachment, many scholars and other commentators say it should be a bipartisan effort to remove a president who is dangerous to the nation. However, the world of academia differs from that of politics. In contrast, House Republicans pursued Clinton by disregarding polls that said two-thirds of the nation opposed impeachment. The vote in the House then fell mostly along party lines. Future House majorities could use this precedent to impeach a political opponent without substantial public support.

The price of the impeachment, however, was high for House Republicans. Speaker newt gingrich (R-Ga.) resigned after mid-term elections in November 1998, trimming the Republican House majority to six votes. Then, upon exposure of his own extramarital affair, Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston (R-La.) resigned on the day of impeachment, urging Clinton to follow his example. Republicans and Democrats alike might hesitate to pursue another unpopular impeachment with so much at risk. However, when Democrats someday control the House of Representatives with a Republican in the White House, the human temptation for revenge will be great. As historian Benjamin Ginsberg observed,"The history of American politics over the last few decades is that the victims of a political attack denounce it as an illegitimate endeavor—but within a few years adopt it themselves. It's like an arms race."

As for the process of impeachment, Clinton's experience may affect the future use of witnesses and the viability of censure. The House Judiciary Committee declined to call a single witness to any of Clinton's misconduct, relying instead in the investigation by Independent Counsel kenneth w. starr. Democrats criticized this procedure, asking how the House could vote on impeachment without an independent investigation. (In fact, the only other time the House failed to conduct an investigation was when it impeached President Johnson, suggesting that such an approach is political.) During Clinton's trial in the Senate, however, Democrats themselves opposed calling witnesses, a political move motivated by fear that witnesses would reveal something leading to conviction. House managers running the prosecution, who now wanted 15 witnesses after calling none in the House, had to settle for just three. Everyone will remember that lesson next time.

As an alternative to impeachment, Democrats tried to introduce censure resolutions in both the House and Senate. Republicans defeated these efforts. Some said censure was not a legal option, as the U.S. Constitution provides for censure of members of Congress but not presidents. Democrats, however, pointed to past censures of Presidents andrew jackson, john tyler, and James Buchanan, and suggested that Republican opposition stemmed from a desire to brand Democrats as supporting Clinton's misconduct during upcoming elections.

Any future impeachment, whether of a president, judge, or other civil officer, will revisit the question of what constitutes "high Crimes and Misdemeanors," which is undefined in the U.S. Constitution. Those in favor of impeaching Clinton argued that perjury and Obstruction of Justice of any kind are impeachable because they subvert the Rule of Law, making it impossible to expect lawful behavior from ordinary citizens and even future presidents, who are charged by the Constitution with taking "Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." Those who opposed impeachment said that while perjury and obstruction of justice are wrong, they are not impeachable offenses unless they concern the president's official duties and present a danger to the nation.

Clinton's impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate thus will affect future interpretation of "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" in many ways. The House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment for perjury in Clinton's deposition in a civil lawsuit, and for perjury in his criminal Grand Jury testimony. The House voted to impeach only for the latter, suggesting that perjury in a criminal matter is impeachable, while perjury in a civil matter is not.

The Senate, however, voted to acquit Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice even though most Republicans and Democrats believed Clinton lied under oath and tried to influence the testimony of other witnesses. As explained by Senator Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), "The president's conduct is boorish, indefensible, even reprehensible. It does not threaten the republic." This suggests that misconduct, even perjury, that is unrelated to the president's official duties and does not present a danger to the nation is not impeachable.

As such, Clinton's acquittal creates a double standard for impeachment of presidents and judges. In 1986, the House impeached and the Senate convicted Judge Harry E. Claiborne for filing false income tax returns. In 1989, the House impeached and the Senate convicted Judge Walter L. Nixon Jr., for lying under oath about conduct unrelated to his official duties. In neither case did anyone suggest that lying about personal conduct is not an impeachable offense. In fact, the House managers' report concerning Judge Nixon said, "It is difficult to imagine an act more subversive to the legal process than lying from the witness stand. A judge who violates his testimonial oath and misleads a grand jury is clearly unfit to remain on the bench. If a judge's truthfulness cannot be guaranteed, if he sets less than the highest standard for candor, how can ordinary citizens who appear in court be expected to abide by their testimonial oath." The Senate's acquittal of Clinton suggested that lying about private matters is an impeachable offense for judges, but not for presidents.

Finally, the most significant effect of Clinton's impeachment and acquittal may be to define "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" to mean whatever the public wants. Scholars and politicians argued that the term purposefully is vague and undefined to allow Congress to handle each instance in the best interests of the nation. According to constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe, "[u]nless the rights of individuals or minority groups are threatened, our governing institutions are structured to make the sustained will of a significant majority all but impossible to topple—as the failure of the effort to remove President Clinton will dramatically illustrate." Even Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who voted to convict Clinton, said,"It's not just law. It's politics …. And you have to combine those two and say—and this ought to be the prevailing question—what is in the best interest of our country, of our nation, of our people."

Further readings

Amar, Akhil Reed. 1999."On Impeaching Presidents." Hofstra Law Review 28 (winter).

Austin, Jan, ed. 1999. Congressional Quarterly 1998 Almanac. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Baker, Peter, and Juliet Eilperin. 1998."Clinton Impeached." Washington Post (December 20).

Carney, James, John F. Dickerson, and Karen Tumulty. 1999. "Nightmare's End." Time (February 22).

Cooper, Charles J. 1999. "A Perjurer in the White House?: The Constitutional Case for Perjury and Obstruction of Justice as High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (spring).

Coyle, Marcia. 1999. "Impeachment Lessons for the House Are Stark." National Law Journal (February 22).

Gettinger, Stephen. 1999. "Impeachment's Future: Just Another Political Weapon?" CQ Weekly (February 13).

"Impeachment of the President: Interpreting 'High Crimes and Misdemeanors'." 1999. Congressional Digest (February).

Marcus, Ruth. 1999. "House Managers Warn of Trial's Future Impact on Presidency." Washington Post (January 12).

——. 1999. "Scholars Weigh Likelihood of Future Impeachments." Washington Post (February 15).

——. 1999. "With Precedents as a Guide; Senators' Decisions, as Well as Rules, Will Affect Process." Washington Post (January 14).

Samuelson, Robert J. 1998. "Nixon's Revenge." Washington Post (December 23).

"Special Report: Impeachment of the President." 1999. CQ Weekly (February 13).

Tribe, Laurence H. 1999. "And the Winner Is…" New York Times (February 12).

"The Verdict; Constitutional Justice." 1999. New York Times (February 13).

Weisberger, Bernard A. 1999. "Impeachment Aftermath." American Heritage (February).


Articles of Impeachment; Sexual Harassment.

Impeachment is conducted in two stages. Impeachment proceedings begin in the House of Representatives (art. I, sec. 2). This stage satisfies the Framers' belief that impeachment should be a public inquiry into charges against an official, and it involves fact-finding at hearings. After accumulating all the evidence, the House votes on whether or not to impeach. A vote against impeachment ends the process. A vote to impeach formally advances the process to its second stage through what is called adoption of the Articles of Impeachment.Each article is a formal charge with conviction on any one article being sufficient for removal. The case is then sent to the Senate, which organizes the matter for trial (art. I, sec. 3).

During the trial, the Senate follows unique rules. There is no jury (art. III, sec. 2). Instead, the Senate is transformed into a Quasi-Judicial body that hears the case, and the impeached official can attend or be represented by counsel. The vice president presides over the trial of any official except the president, and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial of the president. To convict, a two-thirds majority is needed. The punishments for conviction are removal from office and disqualification from holding office again. No presidential pardon is possible (art. II, sec. 2). Additional criminal charges can be brought against convicted officials, but these are pursued in court and are separate from the impeachment process.

Impeachment is not often pursued. President Andrew Johnson was nearly impeached as a result of a bitter struggle in 1868 between his exercise of executive power and congressional will. He escaped an impeachment conviction in the Senate by a single vote. In 1974, President richard m. nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, resigned rather than face almost certain impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee had recommended that the full House take up three articles of impeachment against Nixon: Obstruction of Justice; abuse of constitutional authority; and refusal to answer the committee's subpoenas.

Congress has adopted the articles of impeachment against one senator, William Blount; one cabinet member, William W. Belknap; and one Supreme Court justice, Samuel Chase. It also has voted to impeach a small number of federal appeals and district court judges. In 1989, U.S. district court judge Alcee Hastings, of Miami, became only the twelfth federal judge in U.S. history to be impeached. His case was unique: He was the first African-American to be appointed to the Florida federal bench, and also the only judge to be impeached after an acquittal in a criminal trial. The House voted to adopt 17 articles of impeachment against him in 1988. After Hastings unsuccessfully challenged his impeachment in court in 1989, the Senate convicted him on eight of the articles and removed him from office. The impeachment and trial of President bill clinton in 1998 and 1999 demonstrated the difficulty of removing an official when the debate becomes politicized. The desire of the House of Representatives to impeach Clinton grew out of actions that had taken place in litigation involving Clinton and Paula Jones. Jones had filed a lawsuit against Clinton, alleging that he had sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. Clinton sought to postpone the suit until he left office but the U.S. Supreme Court, in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 117 S. Ct. 1636, 137 L. Ed. 2d 945 (1997), ruled that a sitting president does not have presidential immunity from suit over conduct unrelated to his official duties. Jones's attorneys then sought to obtain evidence for the trial. Clinton agreed to be deposed in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1998, the first sitting president to do so. At the deposition, Jones's attorney asked Clinton whether he been involved in a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He denied that there had been such a relationship and made other denials to questions about his conduct with Lewinsky. In written responses to interrogatories, Clinton made similar denials. Within days, the news media reported about allegations of a sexual affair between the president and the intern.

kenneth starr, the Independent Counsel who was charged with investigating possible criminal activity by President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in an Arkansas real estate deal ("Whitewater"), worked with Jones's attorneys to develop evidence that Clinton had lied about the affair with Lewinsky. Starr threatened to subpoena Clinton to testify before a Grand Jury about possible perjury and obstruction of justice, but Clinton voluntarily agreed to appear before the grand jury. On August 17, 1998 Clinton changed his story when Starr questioned him before the grand jury. Clinton admitted that he had been alone with Lewinsky and that they had engaged in "inappropriate intimate contact."Much of Clinton's grand jury testimony contradicted the sworn testimony that he had given at the Jones deposition.

Starr prepared a 453-page report and submitted it to the House of Representatives on September 11, 1998. He accused Clinton of betraying his constitutional duty by engaging in a pattern of "abundant and calculating" lies regarding his relationship with Lewinsky. The report, which contained explicit language, was released on the Internet a few days later. The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee began deliberating the possibility of impeaching Clinton. On Dec. 11, 1998, after seven days of hearings, the Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the impeachment of President Clinton. On a 21-to-16, straight, party-line vote, the committee approved an article of impeachment claiming that Clinton had committed perjury before the grand jury. The committee passed two more articles, alleging perjury in the Paula Jones suit and obstruction of justice. On December 12, it passed a fourth article, alleging that Clinton had abused his power. On December 19, the full House of Representatives impeached Clinton, charging him with "high crimes and misdemeanors" for lying under oath and obstructing justice by trying to cover up his affair with Lewinsky. The House voted largely along party lines to approve two of the four proposed articles of impeachment.

The Senate began the impeachment trial on January 14, 1999. Thirteen House members, acting as prosecutors, spent three days making opening statements, laying out the case for the Senate to convict President Clinton and to remove him from office. The team of lawyers representing President Clinton spent the following three days presenting their lines of defense. After the Senate questioned both sides for several days, it adjourned the trial until House prosecutors could be take depositions from Lewinsky and others who had been involved in the alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate, on a 70-30 vote, decided not to call Lewinsky as a witness but permitted videotape excerpts of her testimony to be played at the trial. Both sides played excerpts that it believed to be favorable to its position, which were shown to the U.S. public through the televised deliberations. Closing arguments then were presented, and the Senate moved into closed-door deliberations on February 9, 1999.

On February 19, 1999, the Senate acquitted President Clinton of the two articles of impeachment. Rejecting the perjury charge, ten Republicans and all 45 Democrats voted not guilty. On the obstruction-of-justice charge, the Senate split 50-50. After the verdict was announced, Clinton stated that he was "profoundly sorry" for the burden he had imposed on the Congress and the citizens of the United States.

Impeachment remains the ultimate check on the abuse of power. By providing this power to Congress, the Framers drew on a long tradition of democratic skepticism about leaders. These provisions ensure that leaders will serve the people only so long as they respect the law and their offices. In this sense, the power of impeachment also stands ready to thwart tyranny. Calls are occasionally made for reform that would streamline the impeachment process, but its rare invocation and tradition of service make such reform unlikely.

Further readings

Baron, Alan I. 1995. "The Curious Case of Alcee Hastings." Nova Law Review (spring).

Shea, Pegi Deitz. 2000. The Impeachment Process. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Smith, Alexa J. 1995. "Federal Judicial Impeachment: Defining Process Due." Hastings Law Journal 46 (January).

Strasser, Fred. 1989. "Proud, Unrepentant, Judge Hastings Exits." The National Law Journal (November 6).

Tupaz, Antonio R., and A. Edsel C.F. Tupaz. 2001. Fundamentals on Impeachment. Quezon City, Philippines: Central Lawbook Pub.

Villadolid, Oscar S., and Alice Colet Villadolid. 2001. The Impeachment of a President. Manila.


High Crimes and Misdemeanors; Chase, Samuel, "The Samuel Chase Impeachment Trial" (Sidebar).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. 1) showing that a witness is not telling the truth or does not have the knowledge to testify as he/she did. 2) the trying of a public official for charges of illegal acts committed in the performance of public duty. It is not the conviction for the alleged crime nor the removal from office. It is only the trial itself. (See: impeach)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


1 in the constitutional law of the UK, the process by which a person in some way beyond the reach of the law could be brought to justice in respect of an offence against the state. The HOUSE OF COMMONS accuses and the HOUSE OF LORDS judges both fact and law. The most famous cases are those of Francis Bacon, who was successfully impeached when he was Lord Chancellor, and ofWarren Hastings, who was impeached when Governor-General of India and was acquitted.

The same term is used in the USA in relation to US high officials, where impeachment is the first step in a process; only after there is a vote in favour of impeachment is there a trial on the articles of impeachment. The unelected President Andrew Johnson was impeached but acquitted. President Richard Milhouse Nixon resigned before impeachment could take its course. President William Jefferson Clinton was acquitted after a full impeachment process. The prosecutors did not establish that his reprehensible conduct constituted a high crime and misdemeanour.

2 more loosely, a challenge, e.g. of a witness or a judgment.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

IMPEACHMENT, const. law, punishments. Under the constitution and laws of the United States, an impeachment may be described to be a written accusation, by the house of representatives of the United States, to the senate of the United States, against an officer. The presentment, written accusation, is called articles of impeachment.
     2. The constitution declares that the house of representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment art. 1, s. 2, cl. 5 and that the senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments. Art. 1, s. 3, cl. 6.
     3. The persons liable to impeachment are the president, vice-president, and all civil officers of the United States. Art. 2, s. 4. A question arose upon an impeachment before the senate, in 1799, whether a senator was a civil officer of the United States, within the purview of this section of the constitution, and it was decided by the senate, by a vote of fourteen against eleven, that he was not. Senate Journ., January 10th, 1799; Story on Const. Sec. 791; Rawle on Const. 213, 214 Serg. Const. Law, 376.
     4. The offences for which a guilty officer may be impeached are, treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors. Art. 2, s. 4. The constitution defines the crime of treason. Art. 3, s. 3. Recourse must be had to the common law for a definition of bribery. Not having particularly mentioned what is to be understood by "other high crimes and misdemeanors," resort, it is presumed, must be had to parliamentary practice, and the common law, in order to ascertain what they are. Story, Sec. 795.
     5. The mode of proceeding, in the institution and trial of impeachments, is as follows: When a person who may be legally impeached has been guilty, or is supposed to have been guilty, of some malversation in office, a resolution is generally brought forward by a member of the house of representatives, either to accuse the party, or for a committee of inquiry. If the committee report adversely to the party accused, they give a statement of the charges, and recommend that he be impeached; when the resolution is adopted by the house, a committee is appointed to impeach the party at the bar of the senate, and to state that the articles of impeachment against him will be exhibited in due time, and made good before the senate, and to demand that the senate take order for the appearance of the party to answer to the impeachment. The house then agree upon the articles of impeachment, and they are presented to the senate by a committee appointed by the house to prosecute the impeachment; the senate then issues process, summoning the party to appear at a given day before them, to answer to the articles. The process is served by the sergeant-at-arms of the senate, and a return is made of it to the senate, under oath. On the return- day of the process, the senate resolves itself into a court of impeachment, and the senators are sworn to do justice, according to the constitution and laws. The person impeached is called to answer, and either appears or does not appear. If he does not appear, his default is recorded, and the senate may proceed ex parte. If he does appear, either by himself or attorney, the parties are required to form an issue, and a time is then assigned for the trial. The proceedings on the trial are conducted substantially as they are upon common judicial trials. If any debates arise among the senators, they are conducted in secret, and the final decision is given by yeas and nays; but no person can be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members present. Const. art. 1, s. 2, cl. 6.
     6. When the president is tried, the chief justice shall preside. The judgment, in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States. Proceedings on impeachments under the state constitutions are somewhat similar. Vide Courts of the United States.

IMPEACHMENT, evidence. An allegation, supported by proof, that a witness who has been examined is unworthy of credit.
     2. Every witness is liable to be impeached as to his character for truth; and, if his general character is good, he is presumed, at all times, to be ready to support it. 3 Bouv. Inst. n. 3224, et seq.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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