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This article discusses the elaborate procedure involved in the impeachment of the President of the United States of America. It discusses the different stages of this long drawn out process in its sequential order. A brief account of what actually transpired in the recent impeachment move against the current President is also given.
Impeachment procedure anywhere in the democratic, quasi-democratic world is generally defined as the process by which a public figure of the executive branch of the government is charged with certain offences by the legislative body.
The impeachment procedure in the pop culture is often used synonymously to ‘removal from office’, but its original meaning is simply an accusation similar to the process of an indictment in the criminal law. Impeachment could thus be defined as a statement of charges by the parliament/congress and is the first step towards the withdrawal of the office from the accused public figure.
Once impeached, the individual is either removed instantly or remains in the office before or until the process completes. After, being impeached the next step in the process is that the person will be subjected to voting by the same legislative body.
The voting is for determining whether to subject the person to the conviction of the charges aired. And if the judicial pronouncement convicts the person and pronounces him guilty the process will lead to the person’s final and absolute removal from the office. In most cases, the approval has to be accorded by a supermajority in the house.
Impeachment is considered as an extraordinary measure distinct from the normal course of the governmental affairs and is initiated only in cases where serious allegations of bribery, corruption or subversion are aired. The countries where impeachment exists as a constitutional option include Brazil, France, India, Ireland, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
Impeachment in the United States of America
In the 243year history of the USA, only three presidents had been impeached ever, while there were impeachment attempts against three more. However, the Federal Constitution is silent on setting a formal procedure to be followed in case of impeachment leaving the congress, which is the legislative body of the country to work out the procedure’s particulars on its own.
As America’s current president Donald.J.Trump had been impeached recently let’s have a look at how the procedure works there.
In the official records, impeachment is defined as a constitutional remedy to address serious offences against the system of government. And is considered the first step towards the removal of public office and possible disqualification from holding further office. Hence its purpose is stated as a correction and does not assume the colour of punishment as it is popularly viewed.
In general impeachment proceedings were initiated against public officers 60 times since the US constitution was adopted. And 19 of these cases resulted in impeachment by the house. President Andrew Jackson in 1868, Secretary of War William W.Belknap, in 1876, Senator William Blount in 1797, President William J Clinton in 1998 and 15 Federal Judges. Among them, only 8 impeachments have resulted in senate Convictions.
An impeachment begins with the written accusation called an “Article of Impeachment” which states the offences. The Article has the same purpose as an indictment in the ordinary criminal proceedings. The impeachment authority is distributed between the two legislative bodies; The House and the Senate, while the former is entrusted with the sole power of impeachment the latter is given the authority to try all impeachments.
The term Impeach is used to mean different things during the course of the proceedings. A member rises on the floor to “impeach and officer in presenting a resolution or memorial. The House votes to “Impeach” in the constitutional sense when it adopts an impeachment resolution and the articles that accompany them. This followed by the trial conducted by the senate which either leads to conviction if it is approved by two-thirds, majority otherwise the accused is acquitted.
Who may be Impeached?
The President, the Vice President and all civil Officers can be impeached as provided by the impeachment clause of the constitution. However private citizen cannot be impeached. Since a member of Congress does not come under the label of civil officer they are also omitted from the purview of the impeachment clause.
Federal judges are subject to removal under the impeachment provisions of the constitutions. The same can be initiated against a member of President’s cabinet as was the case with William Belknap.
Even if the accused official has already resigned, the senate and the House can impeach and try them. However, in practice a formal resignation of the charged in effect terminates the procedure as the objective in most cases is already achieved. This was the case with the impeachment proceedings that were initiated against Richard Nixon who was entangled in corruption charges which were nicknamed as the Watergate Scandal.
Grounds for Impeachment
The US constitution lists the grounds for impeachment and conviction as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.When the House feels that such grounds exist, the articles of impeachment are presented to the senate. Any one of the Article may serve as a sufficient basis for conviction.
An offence must be serious and fundamental enough to initiate the impeachment proceeding. This requirement flows from the wording of the clause itself. The time when offences were committed is also taken into account.
Thus in 1973, the house declined to take any action on a request by the then Vice President Agnew for an investigation into the allegations of offences worthy of impeachment but as the offences were not committed during his term of office as Vice president, the request was declined.
100 years earlier in the case against the Vice President, the committee on the Judiciary impeachment cannot be initiated as the alleged offence was committed well before his term as the Vice President began.
In modern practice the following charges invite impeachment proceedings against the accused:
- Abuse of powers: The impeachment procedure against President Andrew Johnson in 1868 was based on the allegation that he had exceeded the powers of office. Johnson was alleged to have violated the tenure of offices Act which was aimed at limiting the President’s discretionary powers with regard to removing his own cabinet members. Nonetheless, the president in contravention to the Act removed the Secretary of War Stanton leading to Johnson’s eventual impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Similarly, President Nixon, as well as President Clinton, was charged with the offence of ‘abuse of powers’.
- Grossly Incompatible Behavior
- One of the Articles submitted for the impeachment of President Clinton alleged that he prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice in a federal civil action .nevertheless the president was acquitted by the Senate of that Article of impeachment subsequently.
The charge is usually applied for impeachment in charges levelled against members of the judiciary.
Other two grounds that can be raised for impeachment include;
- Using the office for personal gains; and
- And on grounds of criminal misconduct.
Presidential Impeachments in the History
The grounds for invoking impeachment power against the president were illustrated during the tenure of President Nixon who was mired in the Watergate scandal wherein republican party members were accused of a break-in at the Democratic party ‘s National Headquarters, in the run-up to the election.
The House Judicial Committee adopted three articles of impeachment. These articles stated three offences which were; abuse of his presidential powers, obstruction of justice and contempt of the congress. However, due to Nixon’s resignation, the voting on the resolution did not take place.
Before him, President Andrew Johnson was also faced with the threat of impeachment on charges of violation of the Tenure of Office Act.
Besides, there were three other failed attempts of impeachment such as the one initiated against George w Bush which was discarded after the resolution was referred to a committee, the one against President James Buchanan which was declined by the committee due to absence of sufficient grounds. And the one against President Tyler was not passed in the House of Representatives.
In the House of representatives
The normal convention relating to impeachment against a public office holder begins with the resolution demanding a committee investigation into the charges arraigned against the officer in question. The committee so constituted after proper research may recommend either the dismissal of the charges or the impeachment.
In the next stage, a resolution of impeachment together with the articles which states the grounds for the same will be submitted in the House.
Following the adoption of the resolution through voting, the house then appoints managers to conduct the trial in the senate. The Senate will be informed of the charges against the impeached. The senate will then inform the house as to when it will receive the managers for the trial. From the next stage onwards senate takes over the proceedings.
In the Senate
The sole power to try the impeached is vested on the senate which it applies through transforming itself into a court during the trial. During the trial of President or Vice President, the Chief Justice will be the presiding authority, while in all other cases the President of the Senate presides over the impeachment. The trial begins once the managers appear who will exhibit the articles and resolution of impeachment of the House.
Next process is the presentation of the evidence which follows a particular pattern in which the evidence against the accused is presented first followed by those in defence, and finally the concluding evidence by the managers. The accused is allowed to defend himself with or without the help of a counsel.
After the evidence session concludes the argument on the case commences followed by deliberation by the senate in executive session accompanied by a vote in the open session.
The constitution mandates a two-thirds majority in the Senate for conviction of the charges for impeachment. The articles will be voted on individually.
Once the accused is convicted successfully the impeachment procedure concludes and necessitates an immediate removal of the impeached from the office.
The case of Donald .J. Trump
Announcement of the Enquiry
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment enquiry into the charges alleged against the current president f the USA Donald J Trump. After the committee for the enquiry was constituted by the congress, evidence from multiple investigative efforts were handed over, including from special prosecutors.
The House voted on Impeachment Rules
The House voted to approve a resolution that laid out the rules for the ongoing impeachment procedure.
November 13-November 21
Intelligence committee’s Public hearing
Public Hearing was conducted by the Intel committee, once the closed-door investigations were completed. Adam B Schiff, the democratic representative and David Nunes, the republican representative questioned the witnesses for 45 minutes each. Rest of the panel members got 5 minutes each for asking the questions.
Intelligence Committee sent the report to the Judiciary Committee. The contents of the report were subsequently made available to the public.
Judiciary Committee hearings
As the committee received the report which held two more hearings.in the first hearing involved a discussion with legal scholars whereas the latter included a presentation by the staff lawyers from the Intelligence Committee.
The committee proposed the two Articles of impeachment. The charges included allegations of abuse of presidential power and obstruction of Congress.
The Articles presented by the Judiciary committee were subjected open voting by the full session of the house which was passed by the members voting on party lines after much debate and deliberation.
Endnote: Impeachment procedure initiated by the House is yet to be taken up by the senate which tries on the charges pronounces the judgement and votes on it, only then can we say that the process is complete.
- Presidential Impeachment: The Original Misunderstanding by John V.Orh
- Impeachment; GPO(Authenticated US Government Information)
- News reports regarding the Impeachment of Donald J Trump(The New York Times, The Guardian etc.)