AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A process that is used to charge, try, and remove public officials for misconduct while in office.

Impeachment is a fundamental constitutional power belonging to Congress. This safeguard against corruption can be initiated against federal officeholders from the lowest cabinet member, all the way up to the president and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Besides providing the authority for impeachment, the U.S. Constitution details the methods to be used. The two-stage process begins in the House of Representatives with a public inquiry into allegations. It culminates, if necessary, with a trial in the Senate. State constitutions model impeachment processes for state officials on this approach. At both the federal and state levels, impeachment is rare: From the passage of the Constitution to the mid-1990s, only 50 impeachment proceedings were initiated, and only a third of these went as far as a trial in the Senate. The reluctance of lawmakers to use this power is a measure of its gravity; it is generally only invoked by evidence of criminality or substantial abuse of power.

The roots of impeachment date to ancient Athens. Its place in the U.S. Constitution was secured by the influence of English COMMON LAW on the Framers of the Constitution. Originally, any English subject, politician, or ruler could institute impeachment charges in Parliament. By the fourteenth century, this power became the exclusive domain of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In 1776, the American colonies included much of the English tradition in state constitutions, but the delegates of the Constitutional Convention hotly debated how best to embody it in the federal Constitution. Their most contentious question

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was over the offenses that should be considered impeachable.

A Challenge to Impeachment

In 1989, federal judge Alcee Hastings was removed from the bench by a Senate vote, becoming the first judge in U.S. history to be impeached after being acquitted in a criminal trial. Hastings vigorously proclaimed his innocence, challenged the proceedings in court, and alleged that racism drove the proceedings.

An appointee of President JIMMY CARTER, Hastings joined the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida as its first African American judge in 1979. In 1981, federal prosecutors indicted him on conspiracy to accept a bribe from a FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION agent posing as a defendant in a case before him. They charged Attorney William A. Borders, president of the National Bar Association, with offering the agent a lenient sentence from Hastings in exchange for $150,000. Borders was convicted in 1982. Hastings was acquitted in February 1983.

Hastings's troubles soon deepened. In April 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit set in motion a three-year investigation into charges that Hastings had manufactured evidence for his defense. The probe concluded that he was guilty, and in March 1987, the JUDICIAL CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED STATES recommended impeachment. The House of Representatives agreed. On August 3, 1988, the full House voted 413?3 to send the case to the Senate with seventeen ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT, including false testimony, fabrication of false records, and improper disclosure of confidential law enforcement information.

Hastings brought suit, seeking a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Hastings v. United States Senate, 716 F. Supp. 38 [1989]). In his three-part complaint, Hastings claimed that (1) the impeachment hearing was procedurally flawed because his trial would be conducted by committee and not by the full body of the Senate; (2) the impeachment hearings violated his Fifth Amendment DOUBLE JEOPARDY rights against a second prosecution for the same crime; and (3) he was being denied EFFECTIVE COUNSEL and was entitled to attorneys' fees.

The suit failed. U.S. district judge Gerhard Gesell held that (1) rule XI of the governing Rules of Procedure and Practice in the Senate When Sitting on Impeachment authorizes a committee format but does not prevent the full participation of the Senate; (2) double jeopardy principles did not apply in this case because impeachment is not a criminal proceeding and because Hastings faced separate impeachment charges; and (3) no statute provides for attorneys' fees.

In August 1989, the Senate panel heard twenty-four days of testimony. On October 20, it convicted Hastings on eight of the impeachment articles and removed him from office. Hastings left the bench continuing to profess his innocence, attacking the Senate's handling of evidence, and maintaining that he was the victim of racism.


Double Jeopardy.

The result of the Framers' debate was a compromise: They borrowed language from English common law but adapted the grounds of impeachment. These grounds are specified in Article II, Section 4: "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." The choice of the phrase "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" left the exact definition of impeachable offenses open to interpretation by Congress. It has invited considerable debate, but it is generally read to mean both indictable offenses and other serious noncriminal misconduct. The latter has included corruption, dereliction of constitutional duty, and violation of limitations on the power of an office. Under the Constitution, federal judges are held to the most exacting standard: They may remain on the bench only "during good Behavior" (art. III, sec. 1).

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Impeachment, the constitutional method for removing presidents, judges, and other federal officers who commit "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," requires a majority vote by the House of...

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