ArtII.S4.2.1 Impeachable Offenses: Overview

Article II, Section 4:

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.

The Constitution provides that the grounds of impeachment are for treason, bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. While the types of conduct constituting treason and bribery are relatively well-understood terms,1 the meaning of high Crimes and Misdemeanors is not defined in the Constitution or in statute.2 The basic framework for impeachment was inherited from English practice by the colonies in their adoption of state constitutions.3 Both experiences informed the adoption of impeachment provisions in the federal Constitution.

The common method for interpreting the Constitution's impeachment provisions stands in some contrast to that of other constitutional provisions. Whereas judicial precedent drives the prevailing understanding of many provisions of the Constitution, impeachment is essentially a political process that is largely unreviewable by the judicial branch.4 As such, the historical practice of impeachment proceedings, rather than judicial decisions, informs our understanding of the Constitution's meaning in this area. In this vein, the meaning of high crimes and misdemeanors is informed not by judicial decisions, but by the history of congressional impeachments.5

Impeachment has been used to remove government officers who abuse the power of the office; conduct themselves in a manner incompatible with the purpose and function of their office; or misuse the office for improper or personal gain.6

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1See U.S. Const. art. III, § 3 (Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.); 18 U.S.C. § 201 (bribery of public officials and witnesses). See also Act of April 30, 1790 § 21, 1 Stat. 112 (1845) (establishing bribery as a federal criminal offense).
  2.  Jump to essay-2See Charles Black, Impeachment 27 (1974).
  3.  Jump to essay-3The Federalist No. 65 (Alexander Hamilton) (Clinton Rossiter ed., 1961); Peter Hoffer & N.E.H. Hull, Impeachment in America, 1635–1805 59–95 (1984).
  4.  Jump to essay-4See Nixon, 506 U.S. at 237–38 (1993) (ruling that a challenge to the Senate's use of a trial committee to take evidence posed a nonjusticiable political question).
  5.  Jump to essay-5II Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 795 (1833) (Again, there are many offences, purely political, which have been held to be within the reach of parliamentary impeachments, not one of which is in the slightest manner alluded to in our statute book. And, indeed, political offences are of so various and complex a character, so utterly incapable of being defined, or classified, that the task of positive legislation would be impracticable, if it were not almost absurd to attempt it.); id. at § 798 (In examining the parliamentary history of impeachments, it will be found, that many offences, not easily definable by law, and many of a purely political character, have been deemed high crimes and misdemeanours worthy of this extraordinary remedy.).
  6.  Jump to essay-6See Cong. Globe, 40th Cong., 2d Sess. 1400 (1868) (impeaching President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act); 132 Cong. Rec. H4710–22 (daily ed. July 22, 1986) (impeaching Judge Harry E. Claiborne for providing false information on federal income tax forms); 156 Cong. Rec. 3155–57 (2010) (impeaching Judge G. Thomas Porteous for engaging in a corrupt relationship with bail bondmen where he received things of value in return for helping bondsman develop relationships with state judges).