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Impeachment - The Law

The removal of the President from office was provided for by the founders of the United States in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution focuses specifically on the executive branch of the government, how the President is selected, the duties of the President, and the term of office. The last section of Article II, Section 4, deals specifically with the grounds for impeachment:
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.

That's it - nothing more. The process is spelled out in Article 1, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution, but there is no further elaboration on reasons for the impeachment of a President.

Impeachment was a term borrowed from British law. It was the name for a trial of an individual by the House of Lords at the request of the House of Commons. It was commonly used in battles between the Crown and Parliament, but fell into disuse by 1806 after several highly political trials.

Treason is pretty easy to understand: Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines it as an "attempt to overthrow the government."

Bribery is similarly well-understood: "The act or practice of giving or taking a bribe."

But what about "other high Crimes and Misdemeanors?" This phrase is clearly subject to interpretation -- by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

According to Ilona Nickels, C-SPAN Resident Congressional Scholar,

In our most recent experience with presidential impeachment -- Watergate in 1974 -- the House Judiciary Committee stated that historically, Congress had issued Articles of Impeachment in three broad categories: (1) exceeding the constitutional bounds of the powers of the office; (2) behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office; and (3) employing the power of the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

< return to Impeachment -- A Guide next: The Process >

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