Impeachment: When a Public Official is Put on Trial

After President Trump made the controversial decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey in 2016, representative Ted Deutch’s (D-FL) post on Twitter said, “Asking FBI to drop an investigation is obstruction of justice. Obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense.” For the first two years of President Trump’s presidency, impeachment has continued to be the hot topic of debate among political analysts. But what happens when a politician commits a crime? Or a judge accepts a bribe, or if the President gets in the way of a criminal investigation?

To understand this debate, one must understand what impeachment is. An impeachment occurs when a public official is charged with a crime. After charges have been laid out against the official, they are convicted, similar to a criminal indictment. The official is not removed from office, but they can be banned from running for future office. Impeachment proceedings are not only limited to the United States but also exist in other countries like Ireland, India and South Korea.

According to the U.S. Office of the Historian, the act of impeachment goes back to the 14th Century in British constitutional law. This was an effort to have British officials be held liable for their actions. Centuries later, the process was further explained in Federalist Paper 65, written by Alexander Hamilton, who described impeachment as the ruling on “Misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” The founding fathers always held accountability of their elected leaders in high regard and saw impeachment as a formality to keep government officials in check.

But who can get impeached other than the president? In the U.S., local representatives, senators, governors, mayors and even judges can be impeached by a trial of their peers. The crimes that are lauded against these officials can range from interfering with a criminal investigation, violating ethics codes, racketeering, bribery and perjury. However, depending on local laws, impeachment does not guarantee a removal from office or even a ban on running for re-election.

For the President, in Article II, Section 4 the U.S. Constitution states, “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.” There has been historical debate about what qualifies as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Since the ratification of the Constitution. As Professor of Law Education at Georgia State University Neil J. Kinkopf wrote, “The framers debated this phrase and settled on this formulation precisely to prohibit Congress from impeaching officers for any reason at all.” In the past, only two U.S. presidents have faced impeachment but neither were convicted: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Facing impeachment in 1974, Richard Nixon resigned and never went through proceedings.

To impeach a President or member of Congress, first the members of the House of Representatives vote on one or several articles of impeachment against the public official. Once the articles pass in the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee runs the trial led by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while other Senators serve as the jury. If convicted by a 2/3 supermajority vote by the Senate, the body will move on or start the process of removing the public official from office depending on the severity of the crime.

Although not all public officials are removed from office once convicted, an impeachment on their record does serious damage to their political power and clout. Out of the nineteen U.S. federal officials impeached, only seven of them were aquitted. This shows that even with the debate surrounding the meaning of “High crimes and misdemeanors,” impeachment is intended for the most serious of offenses.

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