Ever since the Watergate era, the impeachment process has been a part of modern American politics. There had been no impeachment of a U.S. president for over 100 years until Richard Nixon was threatened with it back in 1973 and 1974. It became part of the political lexicon as many succeeding presidents have had calls for their impeachment at some time during their administrations. In 1998, Bill Clinton became only the second American president to be officially impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying under oath about a sexual affair. The rules of the impeachment process are arcane and rarely used, but, if you're interested, sit back and enjoy the minutiae of how someone gets impeached.
- Impeachment resolutions have to be made by members of the House of Representatives. They have to meet the terms of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as outlined in the Constitution as impeachable offenses. If these claims are made, they are turned over to the House Judiciary Committee where it is decided whether the resolution and its allegations of wrongdoing by the President merits a referral to the full House for a vote on commencing a formal impeachment inquiry. The entire House of Representatives votes yea or nay for a formal impeachment inquiry with only a bare majority needed for the process to continue.
- The House Judiciary Committee conducts an investigation to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant articles of impeachment against the President. If so, the Committee then prepares articles of impeachment relating to particular charges supported by the evidence. The committee votes on each article of impeachment, deciding whether to refer each article to the full House for a vote.
- If the findings of the House Judiciary Committee are that one or more articles of impeachment should be pursued, the entire House votes on whether those articles are worthy of a trial in the Senate. Again, only a simple majority is needed for approval. When thefull House approves at least one article of impeachment, the President is technically impeached and the matter is turned over to the Senate for a trial. The House is charged with appointing members of Congress to act as “managers” in the Senate (similar to prosecutors in our justice system).
- The trial of the President takes place in the Senate. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the case. The President can be represented by anyone of his choice. He may decide to attend or leave the defense to his lawyers. The entire Senate may manage the trial or it or it may be assigned to a special committee which would report all findings to the full Senate.
- If a trial takes place, it is conducted like a courtroom proceeding. You will have examination and cross-examination of witnesses and introduction of evidence on both sides. During questioning the Senators do not speak. In its place, they direct all questions to the Chief Justice in written form.
- The Senate then comes up with a verdict. Upon hearing all of the evidence and closing arguments, the Senate deliberates behind closed doors, much like a jury, on whether the burden of proof has been met. The Senate will then vote in open session on whether to convict or acquit the President. The vote to convict must be by a two thirds majority (67 of the 100 Senators). If this happens, the President is removed from office and is replaced by the Vice President. The Senate's verdict is final and there is no right to appeal it.