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A primer on the impeachment process

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

A presidential impeachment is imminent and these are the facts followers should know.

By Solomon Smith, Managing Editor

The U.S. Constitution is built on a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government. The framers crafted a document that provides the guidelines for impeachment.

Impeachment is the process of removing high ranking elected (but not always) federal officials from office and applies to more than just the president. Impeachment can occur at the municipal, state or county level, and is rare.

According to Ballotpedia, a bipartisan digital encyclopedia of American politics, of the 15 federal judges, two presidents, one senator, and one cabinet member who faced impeachment, only eight of the judges were convicted.

The Constitution offers about four lines on impeachment, which includes the familiar “high crimes and misdemeanors” clause. The Congressional Research Service describes the set of rules and guidelines for the impeachment process created from legal precedent and history.

The House of Representatives first investigate the alleged crime or abuse of power. This is done in the lower House and is solely to obtain, discover and weigh evidence of wrong-doing. Afterward a report is made, it may be publicly available.

Though the president is being investigated, it is not, formally, a trial. There is no defense, per se, but each party can suggest individuals to provide testimony. The committee turns over their findings to the public and then the next step is triggered — drawing up articles of impeachment. This is where the impeachment process truly begins.

House members in special committees take the testimony and evidence and decide if it is impeachable. Former president Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon’s successor, describes the difficulty of defining impeachment.

“An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history,” said Ford.

This is what makes the process so muddled and political. Alexander Hamilton, however, made it clear in the Federalist papers that he was referring to the abuse of power

This broad definition stems from the “high crimes and misdemeanors” clause of the Constitution in Article II, Section 4. Impeachment of the president stems from the Constitution itself: Article I, section 2, clause 5 and Article I, section 3, clause 6 & 7.

Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers, explains that this does not mean crime as in statute, but “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” It was left broad to give congress enough reach should a high-ranking official be found to misuse their office. Simply put, there does not have to be a crime to impeach the president.

These articles are created listing the crimes, or reasons for impeachment, by the House of Representatives. In this instance they could be thought of as the police and state attorney. Doing the preliminary investigations, compiling evidence for the crime and the write up of the Articles of Impeachment. These articles also include the findings of the House as well as the evidence that they used to come to their conclusion.

There are no real guidelines as to how to go about compiling the evidence, processing it and what the status of the president is during this time. Much of what is used as a guideline in this process comes from precedent rather than written law. but if a new problem arises the House must figure out the best, most fair way to move forward. This is the first place that talk of constitutional law come in to play. The nebulous rules give the president plenty of room to interfere in the process indirectly.

Here is an example from the current presidency. Trump announced that he will not work with Congress as long as they are investigating him. This means that he could effectively cripple government in an effort to interrupt an investigation of himself.

Next the president is tried for impeachment. The president hires a personal lawyer and is deposed, the same as any other citizen, the difference being that the trial is held in the U.S. Senate. During the trial, Congress hears evidence from the prosecution and the president’s defense. The Constitution is specifically broad in some places and narrow in others to offer the flexibility that a living government needs. The problem here is that at times there is a build-as-you-go mentality for the handling of new situations.

The Senate weigh both sides (as in a trial) and then make a decision. That decision can be anything from impeachment, to a censure by Congress or nothing at all. Impeachment and removal from office does not bear any criminal conviction but the individual can be prosecuted under the law for any crimes committed while in office and can no long hold any high office in the public trust.

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