Impeachment is the process that enables a legislative body to remove a public official from office. It comprises two parts: (1) an accusation or indictment and (2) a trial.
This practice has roots in English constitutional history. Members of Parliament employed impeachment against royally appointed Stuart officials in the 1600s. The concept was brought to the American colonies, where legislative assemblies used it against royal officials. Few other countries have provisions for impeachment.
Clause 5: The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Article I, Section 3
Clause 6: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Clause 7: Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party, (defendant), convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
Under this two-part procedure, the House of Representatives is charged with initiating the process by bringing articles of impeachment against an accused official. The Senate, in turn, tries the accused on the charges provided by the House. Few guidelines exist for these Senate trials. If the President has been impeached, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is designated to preside; the Vice-President has presided in all other instances.
A two-thirds vote of the Senate is necessary to convict and remove the official from office. Those so convicted are barred from holding federal office in the future.
No rule prevents the impeachment of members of the House or Senate, but that action has never been successfully taken.
The Constitution also makes reference to those offenses deemed to be impeachable:
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.
Treason and bribery are usually clearly understood concepts, but "high crimes and misdemeanors" are open to a wide latitude of interpretation. Some constitutional scholars have argued that only criminal offenses meet that standard, but others have maintained that a simple breach of the public trust is sufficient.
During the Constitutional Convention, some of the Framers urged that "maladministration" be added to the list of impeachable offenses. Others wisely opposed that addition, fearing that impeachment might become a trivial political matter.
The following table summarizes the handful of impeachments that have occurred. This remedy has been used primarily against federal judges, who are lifetime appointees and do not stand for election.