Early last week, G. Thomas Porteous Jr. made headlines when he became the first impeachment trial since Bill Clinton. But what does impeachment mean, and why is it in our Constitution? Steve Frank explains and fills us in about this most common uses for this uncommon procedure.
Impeachment is the Constitution's way of removing from office "the President, Vice President, and all other civil officers of the United States," including federal judges, if guilty of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." As with this week's impeachment trial of a federal judge from Louisiana, articles of impeachment are drafted in the House of Representatives and approved by a majority vote. The trial takes in the Senate, with a two-thirds vote needed for conviction.
Influenced by the English tradition of impeachment as means to check abusive, high-ranking ministers, the Framers of the Constitution borrowed the procedure mainly as means of checking the president. But with the exception of the impeachment proceedings involving presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the procedure has mainly become a device to remove corrupt lower federal court judges from the bench.
From the beginning impeachment has been riddled with controversy, including heated debate over what constitutes a "high crime and misemeanor" and whether the same standards that apply to impeafhment of the president should also apply to judges. In practice lower federal judges are more easily removed from office than the president. But a Supreme Court Justice has been impeached only once: Samuel Chase in 1804. His acquitall established an important precedent against using judicial impeachment as an overtly partisan, political weapon.
For a detailed look at impeachment's role in the creation of Constitution, read the notes taken by James Madison during the Framers' debates on the impeachment provisions.