Friday, July 18, 2014

Violating the Constitution: Impeachment in American History

The Founding Fathers wished to establish a strong central government, yet limit the capacity for the abuse of power. Their goal was to separate power among the branches of government and avoid partisanship in critical issues, particularly in matters such as impeachment. Borrowed from their English forebears, the impeachment process is a tool for the removal of public officials from power as a part of the “checks and balances” system of federalist government. It ensures both continuity and accountability of office holders as a check against those attempting to sway the balance in their favor.

Framing the Process

Under Article II, Section 4, of the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives has the sole power of impeachment. If the House passes articles of impeachment, responsibility to try the charges and remove those guilty then passes to the Senate. The Senate must concur with a two-thirds majority for a conviction of guilt. The process applies only to the Executive and Judicial branches; Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution outlines the procedure for removing members of Congress. While punishment is restricted to removal and disqualification from holding office, removed office holders can face civil or criminal trial for crimes they committed while in office. Article II, Section 4, reads:

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 ambiguity of the latter part has perplexed legal scholars and political analysts since inception. Interpretation includes crimes that threaten national security, as well as non-criminal actions derided solely for their political unpopularity. The issue centers on what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” With impeachment not a criminal proceeding, as it is strictly a means for the removal of officeholders, there is debate whether one must be guilty of a criminal offense for its occurrence. Many argue that such a broad interpretive context politicizes the process, despite the attempt by the Founders to do otherwise. In Federalist Paper no. 65, Alexander Hamilton expressed the sentiment thusly in 1788:

The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

The flexibility of “high crimes and misdemeanors” has had mixed results over the course of U.S. history, as what constitutes an indictment of wrongdoing has been re-interpreted to correlate with circumstances of the time. However, the majority agree that any violation or abuse of the public trust injurious to society as a whole is an impeachable offense.

Famous Cases

In 1797, the House voted to impeach Senator William Blount despite his earlier expulsion from the Senate. However, the Senate dropped the charges against him, citing his removal from office as due punishment. It set the precedent with regard to the limitations of action Congress could take against its members. Blount was the first ever expelled from the Senate under the Constitution. Nevertheless, the majority of impeachment proceedings have involved judges. The most famous – Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1804 – involved charges of political bias. Defenders argued that Chase’s actions, while extreme and immodest, were not impeachable. Many regard his acquittal by the Senate in 1805 as preserving the independence of the judicial branch.

In the history of the United States, four Presidents – John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and William Clinton – have faced impeachment. The resolution against Tyler in 1843 never passed the House, while Nixon resigned in 1974 before a near guaranteed impeachment and conviction by the full Congress. The only two ever impeached by the House – Johnson in 1868 and Clinton in 1998 – were eventually acquitted by the Senate following bitter partisan trials. President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon upon his resignation, later issued a controversial pardon for any offenses Nixon may have committed while in office. At the time, many criticized it as a politically motivated bargain struck between the two; scholars and historians have since concluded that it promptly restored the integrity of the Presidency during a critical period in U.S. history.

Given the current administration’s numerous scandals over the past 5 ½ years that have been more the rule than the exception – and that thus far outweigh those of its four predecessors combined – could another sitting president face the same fate? With falling poll numbers and failing policies plaguing President Obama and Democrats in general, the prospect exists should Republicans gain control over the full Congress – and has the leadership and votes in place to pursue it – following the mid-term election in November.

©2014 Steve Sagarra

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