Richard Briffault on Presidential Impeachment

President Trump’s remarks about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville led lawmakers in both parties to distance themselves and spurred calls by some Democrats for impeachment.

The Constitution authorizes removal from office of a president, vice president, and “civil officers” upon impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, and “other high crimes and misdemeanors,” but the framers did not specify what that standard means, explains Richard Briffault, the Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation, whose teaching and writing focus on the law of the political process.


“The historical sense is that it basically means... serious political crimes, sort of crimes against the state, crimes that involve abuse of office, abuse of power, abuse of trust,” Briffault tells Business Insider. “The combination of the scholarly learning and of the handful of impeachments that we've had, suggest that the behavior doesn't actually have to be a crime.”

Though only two presidents—Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—have been impeached (both remained in office; President Richard Nixon resigned before impeachment), Briffault notes that judges have been impeached for behavior “which wasn’t technically a crime, and not all crimes would be the basis for impeachment.”

Impeachment begins in the House of Representative, which has the sole power to impeach an official. The House “acts like a grand jury,” says Briffault, who adds that the House can impeach “by a simple majority vote.”

The process then shifts to the Senate, which acts as a court to try the impeachment. “The impeachment is actually what the House of Representatives does,” explains Briffault. “The conviction...would be by the Senate.”

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Posted on August 21, 2017