Impeachment seems to be the word of the day. What is impeachment? What is the process? What happens if the president is impeached? What happens if the president is convicted? These questions seem to arise and it seems that the answers are few and generally not understandable. As a result, I am going to attempt to answer all of these questions with basic clarity.
The United States Constitution provides the procedural outline. Article I, Section 2, provides that House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” To impeach the president, the House of Representatives must ﬁnd that the president has committed “Treason, Bribery or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That means that the House shall conduct an investigation of the facts that would prove that the president committed treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors. If the House, by a majority vote of its members, ﬁnds sufficient evidence of such conduct, the House issues what is called articles of impeachment. (If the alternative vote is less than a majority, then the impeachment process stops.)
If the articles of impeachment are issued, they are immediately forwarded to the United States Senate. The Senate conducts a trial on the allegations set forth in the articles of impeachment. The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides at the trial. The senators are the jury. To vote for conviction, a senator must ﬁnd that the president committed an act or acts of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors as set out in the articles of impeachment. In order to convict the president, two-thirds of the senators present must vote for conviction. In the event of conviction, the president is removed from office. In the event the senators do not convict, the articles of impeachment are dismissed and the president remains in office.
Only three times in the history of the United States has the law of impeachment been activated. In 1868, Andrew Johnson had articles of impeachment issued against him and the senators did not convict him. In 1974, Richard Nixon was in the process of being investigated under the Impeachment process. Nixon resigned from the presidency before the impeachment process was completed. In 1998, Bill Clinton had articles of impeachment issued against him but senators did not convict him. Obviously, impeachment is rare.
The primary reason impeachment is rare is the insight of those individuals who drafted and passed the Constitution. The criteria set forth, namely, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors, are high hurdles. I have been involved in the prosecution of hundreds of high crimes and misdemeanors. Each of these crimes have specific elements. It is necessary to have witnesses and/or direct evidence (photos, documents etc.) and/or circumstantial evidence to prove the elements. In a criminal prosecution, it is necessary to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. In an impeachment trial it is not necessary to prove the elements beyond a reasonable doubt. It is only necessary to convince senators that the president committed treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Impeachment is a very serious process under our constitutional government. Congress must be committed to honoring the words and intent of our founders as set forth in Articles One and Two of our Constitution. If Congress fails, the consequences may be catastrophic.
Gene Kopecky is an attorney who lives in Cedar Rapids.