Impeachment in the United States

Impeachment in the United States is the process by which the lower house of a legislature brings charges against a civil officer of government for crimes alleged to have been committed, analogous to the bringing of an indictment by a grand jury. At the federal level, this is done by the House of Representatives. Most impeachments have concerned alleged crimes committed while in office, though there have been a few cases in which officials have been impeached and subsequently convicted for prior crimes.[1] The impeached official remains in office until a trial is held. That trial, and their removal from office if convicted, is separate from the act of impeachment itself. Analogous to a trial before a judge and jury, these proceedings are (where the legislature is bicameral) conducted by upper house of the legislature, which at the federal level is the Senate.

At the federal levelArticle I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution grants to the House of Representatives „the sole power of impeachment”, and Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 grants to the Senate „the sole Power to try all Impeachments”. In considering articles of impeachment, the House is obligated to base any charges on the constitutional standards specified in Article II, Section 4: „The PresidentVice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, TreasonBribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors„.[2] (Full text of clauses Wikisource has information on "Constitution of the United States of America" )

Impeachment can also occur at the state level. Each state‘s legislature can impeach state officials, including the governor, in accordance with their respective state constitution.

Federal impeachment

The number of federal officials impeached by the House of Representatives includes two presidents: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton; both were later acquitted by the Senate.[3] Additionally, an impeachment process against Richard Nixon was commenced, but not completed, as he resigned from office before the full House voted on the articles of impeachment.[2] To date, no president has been removed from office by impeachment and conviction.

House of Representatives

Impeachment proceedings may be commenced by a member of the House of Representatives on his or her own initiative, either by presenting a list of the charges under oath or by asking for referral to the appropriate committee. The impeachment process may be initiated by non-members. For example, when the Judicial Conference of the United States suggests a federal judge be impeached, a charge of actions constituting grounds for impeachment may come from a special prosecutor, the President, or state or territorial legislaturegrand jury, or by petition.

The type of impeachment resolution determines the committee to which it is referred. A resolution impeaching a particular individual is typically referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. A resolution to authorize an investigation regarding impeachable conduct is referred to the House Committee on Rules, and then to the Judiciary Committee. The House Committee on the Judiciary, by majority vote, will determine whether grounds for impeachment exist. If the Committee finds grounds for impeachment, it will set forth specific allegations of misconduct in one or more articles of impeachment. The Impeachment Resolution, or Articles of Impeachment, are then reported to the full House with the committee’s recommendations.

The House debates the resolution and may at the conclusion consider the resolution as a whole or vote on each article of impeachment individually. A simple majority of those present and voting is required for each article for the resolution as a whole to pass. If the House votes to impeach, managers (typically referred to as „House managers”, with a „lead House manager”) are selected to present the case to the Senate. Recently, managers have been selected by resolution, while historically the House would occasionally elect the managers or pass a resolution allowing the appointment of managers at the discretion of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. These managers are roughly the equivalent of the prosecution or district attorney in a standard criminal trial.

Also, the House will adopt a resolution in order to notify the Senate of its action. After receiving the notice, the Senate will adopt an order notifying the House that it is ready to receive the managers. The House managers then appear before the bar of the Senate and exhibit the articles of impeachment. After the reading of the charges, the managers return and make a verbal report to the House.


Depiction of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, in 1868, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding.

The proceedings unfold in the form of a trial, with each side having the right to call witnesses and perform cross-examinations. The House members, who are given the collective title of managers during the course of the trial, present the prosecution case, and the impeached official has the right to mount a defense with his or her own attorneys as well. Senators must also take an oath or affirmation that they will perform their duties honestly and with due diligence. After hearing the charges, the Senate usually deliberates in private. The Constitution requires a two-thirds super majority to convict a person being impeached[4]. The Senate enters judgment on its decision, whether that be to convict or acquit, and a copy of the judgment is filed with the Secretary of State.[5] Upon conviction in the Senate, the official is automatically removed from office and may also be barred from holding future office. The trial is not an actual criminal proceeding and more closely resembles a civil service termination appeal in terms of the contemplated deprivation, therefore the removed official may still be liable to criminal prosecution under a subsequent criminal proceeding, which the Constitution specifically indicates. The President may not grant a pardon in the impeachment case, but may in any resulting Federal criminal case.[6]

Beginning in the 1980s with Harry E. Claiborne, the Senate began using „Impeachment Trial Committees” pursuant to Senate Rule XI.[5]These committees presided over the evidentiary phase of the trials, hearing the evidence and supervising the examination and cross-examination of witnesses. The committees would then compile the evidentiary record and present it to the Senate; all senators would then have the opportunity to review the evidence before the chamber voted to convict or acquit. The purpose of the committees was to streamline impeachment trials, which otherwise would have taken up a great deal of the chamber’s time. Defendants challenged the use of these committees, claiming them to be a violation of their fair trial rights as this did not meet the constitutional requirement for their cases to be „tried by the Senate.” Several impeached judges, including District Court Judge Walter Nixon, sought court intervention in their impeachment proceedings on these ground. In Nixon v. United States (1993), the Supreme Court determined that the federal judiciary could not review such proceedings, as matters related to impeachment trials are political questions and could not be resolved in the courts.[2]


In the United Kingdom, impeachment was a procedure whereby a member of the House of Commons could accuse someone of a crime. If the Commons voted for the impeachment, a trial would then be held in the House of Lords. Unlike a bill of attainder, a law declaring a person guilty of a crime, impeachments did not require royal assent, so they could be used to remove troublesome officers of the Crown even if the monarch was trying to protect them.

The monarch, however, was above the law and could not be impeached, or indeed judged guilty of any crime. When King Charles I was tried before the Rump Parliament of the New Model Army in 1649 he denied that they had any right to legally indict him, their king, whose power was given by God and the laws of the country, saying: „no earthly power can justly call me (who is your King) in question as a delinquent … no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King.” While the House of Commons pronounced him guilty and ordered his execution anyway, the jurisdictional issue tainted the proceedings.

With this example in mind, the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention chose to include an impeachment procedure in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution which could be applied to any government official; they explicitly mentioned the President to ensure there would be no ambiguity. Opinions differed, however, as to the reasons Congress should be able to initiate an impeachment. Initial drafts listed only treason and bribery, but George Mason favored impeachment for „maladministration” (incompetence). James Madison argued that impeachment should only be for criminal behavior, arguing that a maladministration standard would effectively mean that the President would serve at the pleasure of the Senate.[7] Thus the delegates adopted a compromise version allowing impeachment for „treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The precise meaning of the phrase „high crimes and misdemeanors” is somewhat ambiguous; some scholars, such as Kevin Gutzman, argue that it can encompass even non-criminal abuses of power. Whatever its theoretical scope, however, Congress traditionally regards impeachment as a power to use only in extreme cases. The House of Representatives has actually initiated impeachment proceedings 62 times since 1789.[citation needed] Two cases did not come to trial because the individuals had left office.

Actual impeachments of 19 federal officers have taken place. Of these, 15 were federal judges: thirteen district court judges, one court of appeals judge (who also sat on the Commerce Court), and one Supreme Court Associate Justice. Of the other four, two were Presidents, one was a Cabinet secretary, and one was a U.S. Senator. Of the 19 impeached officials, eight were convicted. One, former judge Alcee Hastings, was elected as a member of the United States House of Representatives after being removed from office.

The 1797 impeachment of Senator William Blount of Tennessee stalled on the grounds that the Senate lacked jurisdiction over him. No other member of Congress has ever been impeached. The Constitution does give authority to the Senate and House, so that each body may expel its own members. (see List of United States senators expelled or censured and List of United States Representatives expelled, censured, or reprimanded). Expulsion removes the individual from functioning as a representative or senator because of their misbehavior, but unlike impeachment, expulsion cannot result in barring an individual from holding future office.

State and territorial officials impeached[edit]

Date Accused Office Result
1804 Associate JudgeFairfield County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas Removed
1832 Associate JusticeIllinois Supreme Court Acquitted[26]
February 26, 1862 Governor of Kansas Acquitted[27]
Secretary of State of Kansas Removed on June 12, 1862[28]
George S. Hillyer
Kansas State auditor Removed on June 16, 1862[28]
1871 Governor of North Carolina Removed
1871 Governor of Nebraska Removed[27]
February 1872 Governor of Florida Acquitted[29]
1872 Governor of Louisiana „suspended from office,” though trial was not held[30]
1876 Governor of Mississippi Resigned[27]
1888 Kentucky State Treasurer Removed
1901 Chief JusticeNorth Carolina Supreme Court Acquitted[31]
Associate JusticeNorth Carolina Supreme Court Acquitted[31]
August 13, 1913[32] Governor of New York Removed on October 17, 1913[33]
July 1917 Governor of Texas Removed[34]
October 23, 1923 Governor of Oklahoma Removed
January 21, 1929 Governor of Oklahoma Removed
April 6, 1929[35] Governor of Louisiana Acquitted
May 1958[36] Judge, Hamilton County, Tennessee Criminal Court Removed on July 11, 1958[37]
March 14, 1984[38] Nebraska Attorney General Acquitted by the Nebraska Supreme Court on May 4, 1984[39]
February 6, 1988[40] Governor of Arizona Removed on April 4, 1988[41]
March 30, 1989[42] West Virginia State treasurer Resigned on July 9, 1989 before trial started[43]
January 25, 1991[44] Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Resigned on February 6, 1991 before trial started[45]
May 24, 1994[46] Associate JusticePennsylvania Supreme Court Removed on October 4, 1994, and declared ineligible to hold public office in Pennsylvania[47]
October 6, 1994[48] Secretary of State of Missouri Removed by the Missouri Supreme Court on December 12, 1994[49]
November 11, 2004[50] Nevada State Controller Censured on December 4, 2004, not removed from office[51]
April 11, 2006[52] Member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents Removed by the Nebraska Supreme Court on July 7, 2006[53]
January 8, 2009 (first vote)[54] Governor of Illinois 95th General Assembly ended
January 14, 2009 (second vote)[55] Removed on January 29, 2009, and declared ineligible to hold public office in Illinois[56]
February 11, 2013[57] Governor of the Northern Mariana Islands Resigned on February 20, 2013
August 13, 2018[58] Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Retired on August 13, 2018 before trial started[59]
Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Trial before the West Virginia Senate pending
Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Trial before the West Virginia Senate pending
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Trial before the West Virginia Senate pending