The process for removing government officials for malfeasance (wrongdoing or misconduct especially by a public official) or criminal activity. The United States conception of impeachment expands upon the English process in which the House Of Commons brought charges against an aristocrat or official; the House of Lords conducted the trial and rendered the verdict. Political motivations almost always underlie impeachment, therefore significant evidence of wrongdoing has historically been crucial.

In Colonial Times

During The Colonial Era (1607-1775), governors appointed by proprietors and kings of England would clash with colonial assemblies. As tension grew between the colonies and Great Britain, impeachment was an important weapon against these royal officials. The framers of the United States Constitution made the president, vice president, and "all civil officers of the United States" liable to impeachment for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Under the Constitution, impeachments are brought by the House Of Representatives and are tried by the Senate. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote. Punishment is limited to removal from office.

Presidential Impeachments

Three United States presidents have been impeached, though none has been convicted by the Senate. The House Of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875, 17th Pres.) in 1868. They charged that Johnson violated the 1867 Tenure of Office Acts by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The significance of this violation is that Johnson obstructed Reconstruction (1865-1877) -- the Congressional attempt to rebuild and reform the South politically, economically and socially following the Civil War, and to refashion race relations throughout the nation -- by dismissing Stanton. The Senate was one vote short of convicting President Johnson.

The House Judiciary Committee recommended the impeachment of President Richard Nixon (1913-1994, 37th pres.) in 1974 for obstructing the Watergate investigation -- a political espionage and cover-up case during the 1972 presidential campaign involving a break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters -- though he resigned before the House voted impeachment articles.

Articles of impeachment were brought against President Bill Clinton (1946-Present, 42nd pres.) by the House in 1998 for perjury and other charges involved in the effort to conceal his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Senate trial (1999) fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the President.

There Goes The Judge

Of the eighteen impeachments the House of Representatives has approved, nearly all have been judges. Members of Congress have not been subject to impeachment since 1799 when the Senate dismissed the case against Senator William Blount of Tennessee; they declared that a member of Congress was not a 'civil officer' liable to impeachment under the Constitution. The history of judicial impeachment has shown that impeachment has been the consequence of grave corruption or serious misbehavior on the bench.

In the most significant case of impeachment in United States history, Jeffersonian Republicans brought articles of impeachment against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (1743-1811) for abusive partisanship on the bench. President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, 3rd pres.) who disapproved of both the Chase's open political orientation (Federalism), and the institution of lifelong tenure for members of the judiciary, encouraged the House of Representatives to impeach him.

The impeachment was unsuccessful due to the efforts of Aaron Burr -- vice president under Jefferson, wanted in two states for the murder of Alexander Hamilton -- and Chase was acquitted in 1805. This landmark decision confirmed the need for serious proof of wrongdoing to bar the politicization of such trials.

Recent Innovation in Impeachment Policy

In the 1980s, the US Judicial Committee - the top rule-making body for federal courts - established a procedure for the referral of impeachment recommendations. The Senate streamlined impeachment by creating impeachment committees to hear testimony, reducing the need for the entire Senate to become involved in each step of the process. Instead, the Senate now votes after reading committee reports. State legislatures utilize impeachment to remove executive and judicial officials primarily for corruption and other wrongdoing, but not as a check on the abuse of executive power.

Source: Gerhardt, Michael. The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis, 1996.