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Impeachment refers to the initiation of a legal process which leads to a public figure (most often the head of government) being removed from office.
In the United States, the POTUS and other officials may be removed from office by Congress after being impeached and convicted. The process, outlined in the Constitution, begins when the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee draws up articles of impeachment against the official to be impeached. After much debate, the full House then votes on them.
If any of the articles so drawn up receives a majority of votes in favor, this is presented as a formal accusation, or indictment, before the US Senate. (The official has been impeached, but not convicted.) In the Senate, it is tried in a manner similar to a criminal case. The chief justice of the Supreme Court acts as judge when the case is against the president or vice president; otherwise the vice president presides. The Senate acts as jury.
After both sides have finished presenting their cases, the Senate votes on whether or not to remove the official in question. It takes a two-thirds majority to remove the person; the proceedings usually also involve a ban on ever holding public office again. In addition to impeachment, the official may also be tried in a separate action for criminal conduct in court. Impeachment is used to remove officials in the executive branch as well as federal judges. Representatives and Senators are expelled according to the rules of their respective houses. In 1797, the House impeached Senator William Blount of Tennessee, but the Senate decided Senators could not be impeached, and instead expelled him.
Presidents Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson were both impeached and acquitted, being the only two presidents ever to go through the process. Johnson avoided conviction by a single vote. The charge was firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton without Senate approval, which violated the Tenure of Office Act. That law was later repealed and ruled unconstitutional. Neither count against Clinton (perjury and obstruction of justice) received a majority vote (again, a vote of two-thirds of the Senate is required to convict).
On July 30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee issued articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, but he resigned before the House could vote on them. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, preventing a criminal trial.
The only Supreme Court justice to have been impeached is Samuel Chase, who was acquitted by the Senate in 1805.
Grounds for impeachment
The constitutional grounds for impeachment are rather vague, being simply "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 much wrangling as to what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors," and the political consequences of such a move. See George W. Bush.
- LII Backgrounder on Impeachment, Cornell University Law School
- Representative Barbara Jordan's "Inquisitor speech"