Events in American politics have sown confusion on the process of impeachment. It is a simple legal process involving an accusation of wrongdoing followed by a trial and can be brought on a federal or state level against public officials. The most high-profile impeachments have been those of U.S. presidents, but other officials can be impeached, as well.
The Founding Fathers identified two specific actions – treason and bribery – they believed were serious enough charges to remove a duly elected president. The term “high crimes and misdemeanors” are also grounds to impeach, but the broad definition of these actions does lead to confusion and controversy.
In a federal impeachment against an elected official, the U.S. House of Representatives has the responsibility to bring charges (the accusation). Then the U.S. Senate hears the case against the accused person in a trial and the senators act as a jury. A state impeachment is a bit different, as each state’s legislature must adhere to its own constitution. They might not be the same procedures as are laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
Federal or state impeachment processes are designed for the removal of an official who has broken the law, and were not designed to be used for political purposes to advance any agenda that is not the will of the people.
The process is as follows:
- The investigation usually begins in the House Judiciary Committee, which compiles evidence and prepares the formal allegation.
- The House then must pass articles of impeachment by a simple majority of representatives who are present and voting. These articles make up the formal indictment. When a simple majority votes for impeachment, the defendant is impeached.
- Finally, the articles of impeachment are sent to the U.S. Senate for trial. In the case of a presidential impeachment, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court presides. The Senate then finds the person innocent or guilty.
The U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to convict an impeached person and those formal documents are then filed with the Secretary of State. If a conviction is rendered, the person impeached must then leave his or her office. With an acquittal, the person may remain in office.
Where many people get confused is they believe that impeached means “guilty,” and “removed from office.” That isn’t the case. Impeached means indicted, or formally accused. Only a conviction by the Senate is a guilty verdict.
Since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, only three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. The issue of impeachment is evolving, however. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid getting impeached, as impeachment is typically a method of removing an official from office. Decades later, in 2021, the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump raised questions about whether a person who has already left office can be impeached. Since that trial occurred after Trump’s presidency had ended, some considered it to be illegal; in a vote, 45 senators said the trial would be unconstitutional, while 55 thought it would not. What does this mean for the future of impeachment?