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Impeachment is the process by which a legislative body formally levels charges against a high official of government. Impeachment does not necessarily mean removal from office; it comprises only a formal statement of charges, akin to an indictment in criminal law, and thus is only the first step towards possible removal. Once an individual is impeached, he or she must then face the possibility of conviction via legislative vote, which then entails the removal of the individual from office.
Because impeachment and conviction of officials involves an overturning of the normal constitutional procedures by which individuals achieve high office (election, ratification, or appointment) and because it generally requires a supermajority, typically only those deemed to have seriously abused their offices will suffer impeachment.
One tradition of impeachment has its origins in the law of England, where the procedure last took place in 1806. Impeachment exists under constitutional law in many nations around the world, including the United States, Russia, the Philippines and the Republic of Ireland.
Impeachment of a witness means challenging his or her honesty or credibility.
Etymologically, the word "impeachment" derives from Latin roots expressing the idea of becoming caught or entrapped, and has analogues in the modern French verb empêcher (to prevent) and the modern English impede. Mediaeval popular etymology also associated it (wrongly) with derivations from the Latin impetere (to attack).
In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons holds the power of impeachment. Any member may make accusations of high treason or high crimes and misdemeanours. The member must support the charges with evidence and move for impeachment. If the Commons carries the motion, the mover receives orders to go to the bar at the House of Lords and to impeach the accused "in the name of the House of Commons, and all the commons of the United Kingdom."
The mover must tell the Lords that the House of Commons will, in due time, exhibit particular articles against the accused, and make good the same. The Commons then usually selects a committee to draw up the charges and create an "Article of Impeachment" for each. (In the case of Warren Hastings, however, the drawing up of the articles preceded the formal impeachment.) Once the committee has delivered the articles to the Lords, replies go between the accused and the Commons via the Lords.
If the Commons have impeached a peer, the Lords take custody of the accused, otherwise custody goes to Black Rod. The accused remains in custody unless the Lords allow bail. The Lords set a date for the trial while the Commons appoints managers, who act as prosecutors in the trial. The accused may defend by counsel.
The House of Lords hears the case, with the Lord Chancellor presiding (or the Lord High Steward if the impeachment relates to a peer accused of high treason.) The hearing resembles an ordinary trial: both sides may call witnesses and present evidence. At the end of the hearing the Lord Chancellor puts the question on the first article to each member in order of seniority, commencing with the most junior peer, and ending with himself, and after all have voted, proceeds to deal with any remaining articles similarly. Upon being called, a Lord must rise and declare upon his honour, "Guilty" or "Not Guilty". After voting on all of the articles has taken place, and if the Lords find the defendant guilty, the Commons may move for judgment; the Lords may not declare the punishment until the Commons have so moved. The Lords may then provide whatever punishment they find fit, within the law. A Royal Pardon cannot excuse the defendant from trial, but a Pardon may reprieve a convicted defendant.
Parliament has held the power of impeachment since mediæval times. Originally, the House of Lords held that impeachment could only apply to members of the peerage (nobles), as the nobility (the Lords) would try their own peers, while commoners ought to try their peers (other commoners) in a jury. However, in 1681, the Commons declared that they had the right to impeach whomsoever they pleased, and the Lords have respected this resolution.
After the reign of Edward IV, impeachment fell into disuse, the bill of attainder becoming the preferred form of dealing with undesirable subjects of the Crown. However, during the reign of James I and thereafter, impeachments became more popular, as they did not require the assent of the Crown, while bills of attainder did, thus allowing Parliament to resist royal attempts to dominate Parliament.
The most recent cases of impeachment dealt with Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India between 1773 and 1786 (impeached in 1788; the Lords found him not guilty in 1795), and Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1806 (acquitted). The last attempted impeachment occurred in 1848, when David Urquhart accused Viscount Palmerston of having signed a secret treaty with Imperial Russia and of receiving monies from the Tsar. Palmerston survived the vote in the Commons; the Lords did not hear the case.
Impeachment in modern politics
The procedure has, over time, become rarely used and some legal authorities (such as Halsbury's Laws of England) consider it to be probably obsolete. The principles of "responsible government" require that the Prime Minister and other executive officers answer to Parliament, rather than to the Sovereign. Thus the Commons can remove such an officer without a long, drawn-out impeachment.
However, it is argued by some that the remedy of impeachment remains as part of British constitutional law, and that legislation would be required to abolish it.
In April 1977 the Young Liberals ' annual conference unanimously passed a motion to call on the Liberal leader (David Steel) to move for the impeachment of Ronald King Murray QC, the Lord Advocate. Mr. Steel did not call the motion but Murray (now Lord Murray, a former Senator of the College of Justice of Scotland) agrees that the Commons still have the right to initiate an impeachment motion.
On 25 August 2004, Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price announced his intention to move for the impeachment of Tony Blair for his role in involving Britain in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In response Peter Hain (Commons Leader) said that impeachment was obsolete, given modern government's responsibility to parliament. (Ironically, Peter Hain had served as president of the Young Liberals when they called for the impeachment of Mr. Murray in 1977.)
In the United States impeachment at the Federal level can apply only to those who have allegedly committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors". The removal of such officers takes place automatically upon conviction.
The federal procedure in the United States involves a vote for impeachment in the House of Representatives on Articles of Impeachment, as in the United Kingdom. Those voting in favour of impeachment may then vote to appoint managers. The hearing takes place in the Senate. In the case of the impeachment of a President, the Chief Justice of the United States presides over the proceedings. Otherwise, the Vice President, in his capacity of President of the Senate, or otherwise the President pro tempore of the Senate (Temporary President) presides.
The proceedings unfold, as in the United Kingdom, in the form of a trial, with each side having the right to call witnesses and perform cross-examinations. House members presenting the prosecution case — in the conduct of the trial styled "managers" — for the purposes of the trial only have full access to the floor of the Senate chamber, a privilege ordinarily denied House members. Senators must also take an oath or affirmation that they will perform their duties honestly and with due diligence, as opposed to the British Lords, who vote upon their honour. The hearing requires a simple majority of the Senators as a quorum. After the hearing the deliberations take place in private. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority. The Senate may vote thereafter to punish the individual only by removing him from office, or by barring him from holding future office, or both. Alternatively, it may impose no punishment. But in the case of executive officers, removal follows automatically upon conviction. The defendant remains liable to criminal prosecution. The President may not in any case use his power of pardon during impeachment, but may, as usual, pardon a defendant in the case of a criminal prosecution.
Congress regards impeachment as a power to use only in extreme cases; the House has initiated impeachment proceedings only 62 times since 1789. Impeachments of only seventeen federal officers have taken place:
- two presidents: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both acquitted. (Richard Nixon resigned after impeachment hearings against him started.)
- one cabinet officer
- one senator
- thirteen federal judges.
The 1799 impeachment of Tennessee Senator William Blount stalled on the grounds that legislators did not qualify as "civil officers" of the United States, establishing the precedent that each chamber may refuse to seat or expel its own members, but that such members remain immune from impeachment proceedings or otherwise being made answerable to the other chamber. (State legislatures have generally also followed this precedent.) Of the remaining cases, two did not come to trial because the individuals had left office. Each of the seven Senate convictions has involved a federal judge: in the most recent such case, Alcee Hastings subsequently gained election as a member of the House which impeached him. A list of impeachment cases that actually went to trial in the Senate can be found below.
¹ During the impeachment trial of Senator Blount, it was determined that the House of Representatives did not have the power to impeach members of either House of Congress. Instead, the Constitution allows either House to expel one of its members by a two-thirds vote. Such was the eventual case with Blount.
² Nixon later challenged the validity of his removal from office on procedural grounds; the challenge was ultimately rejected as nonjusticiable by the Supreme Court in Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993)
Impeachment in the States
As noted above, impeachment can also occur in the United States at the state level. State legislatures can impeach state officials, including governors. Impeachment and removal of governors has happened occasionally throughout the history of the United States, usually for corruption charges. A total of seven U.S. state governors have faced impeachment. As of 2005 the most recent impeachment of a U.S. state governor took place in Arizona and resulted in the removal of Governor Evan Mecham in 1988; several others, most recently Connecticut's John G. Rowland, have resigned rather than face impeachment when events seemed to make it appear inevitable.
Republic of Ireland
In the Republic of Ireland formal impeachment can apply only to the President. Article 12 of the Constitution of Ireland provides that, unless judged to be "permanently incapacitated" by the Supreme Court, the president can only be removed from office by the houses of the Oireachtas (parliament) and only for the commission of "stated misbehaviour". Either house of the Oireachtas may impeach the president, but only by a resolution approved by a majority of at least two-thirds of its total number of members; and a house may not consider a proposal for impeachment unless requested to do so by at least thirty of its number.
Where one house impeaches the president, the remaining house either investigates the charge or commissions another body or committee to do so. The investigating house can remove the president if it decides, by at least a two-thirds majority of its members, both that she is guilty of the charge of which she stands accused, and that the charge is sufficiently serious as to warrant her removal. To date no impeachment of an Irish president has ever taken place. The president holds a largely ceremonial office, the dignity of which is considered important, so it is likely that a president would resign from office long before undergoing formal conviction or impeachment.
The Republic's constitution and law also provide that only a joint resolution of both houses of the Oireachtas may remove a judge. Although often referred to as the 'impeachment' of a judge, this procedure does not technically involve impeachment.
- Austria: The Austrian Federal President can be impeached by the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) before the Constitutional Court. The constitution also provides for the recall of the president by a referendum. Neither of these courses has ever been taken.
- Germany: The Federal President of Germany can be impeached by the Bundestag for willfully violating German law. Once the Bundestag impeaches the president, the Federal Constitutional Court decides whether to remove him or her from office. No such case has yet occurred.
- Carlos Andrés Pérez, president of Venezuela, was impeached in 1993.
- Fernando Collor de Mello, President of Brazil was impeached in 1992, and this led to his resignation.
- Rolandas Paksas, the president of Lithuania, suffered impeachment on April 6, 2004.
- Roh Moo-hyun, the president of South Korea, was impeached on March 12, 2004; Korea's Constitutional Court overturned the decision on May 14, 2004.
- Following impeachment, Alfred Maseng, President of Vanuatu, left office on 11 May 2004.
- Raúl Cubas Grau, President of Paraguay, was impeached in 1999.
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