Recent events in American politics have sewn confusion in the minds of constituents on the process of impeachment. It is a simple legal process akin to a grand jury indictment followed by a trial and can be brought on a federal or state level against public officials.
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 does not make the process easy.
In a federal impeachment against a sitting elected official, the U.S. House of Representatives has the responsibility to levy charges while the U.S. Senate hears the case against the person accused acting 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 provisions as are laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
Either federal or state impeachment processes are designed for the removal of an official from office and were not designed to be used for political purposes to advance any agenda that is not the will of the people.
America just witnessed an impeachment against a sitting president. Since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, only three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.
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 by a simple majority of representatives present and voting articles of impeachment, which 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 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. Even if convicted in an impeachment, a president faces no additional punishment than removal from office.