The Law Behind Impeachment Essay, Research Paper
The framers of the Constitution had numerous discussions leading up to the ratification of the Constitution. Some of the discussions centered on the Executive branch of the government, while others were about impeachment. Their discussions determined what powers and limitations the executive branch was to operate under, and what to do when the power of the office was abused.
Article II, of the Constitution of the United States, allocates and outlines the executive branch of the government. The Executive Branch consists of the President, Vice-President, and their staff. Before the President elect can assume his or her duties as President, he or she must take a sworn oath of office. Within that oath, the President agrees to faithfully execute all laws (9-12). Since the times of George Washington, all Presidents have taken this “Oath of Office”
The U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 4, states “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”(12). According to the Washington Post, “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” dates back to 1787. In that year, the men working on the Constitution came upon an unresolved question: “Under what circumstances should Congress be able to impeach the President?” The framers of the Constitution had agreed that treason and bribery were grounds for impeachment. George Mason, of Virginia, indicated that those two crimes did not capture the “many great and dangerous offenses”. When others complained that his term was too vague, he offered “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(5). “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” could mean anything from murder to jaywalking. Webster’s Dictionary defines crimes as “an act or the commission of an act that is forbidden by public law and makes the offender liable to punishment by that law” and a misdemeanor is defined as “a crime less serious than a felony”(266.728).
The Founding Fathers debated over the subject of impeachment. According to the Washington Post, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 70, that impeachment is necessary because of a President’s ability to “conceal faults and destroy responsibility”. He also wrote about impeachment in Federalist Paper No. 65, saying the President must be impeached for “those offenses, which proceed the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust”. Future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell stated the President is “personally responsible for any abuse of the great trust reposed in him”. He went on to say the President “must certainly be punishable for giving false information”(2-8). In Federalist Paper No. 64, John Jay indicates that the security for fidelity of our nation’s leaders will be their “honor, oaths, reputation, conscience, love of country, family affections, and attachments”(4). The Washington Post goes on to report that James Wilson, Representative of Pennsylvania, wrote that a President “cannot act improperly, and hide neither his negligence or inattention”. He also said the President is “far from being above the laws; he is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment”(3).
Who decides what are “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”? . According to the Washington Post, when the subject of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” reached the Supreme Court, it held that “such phrases must be construed, not according to modern usage, but according to what the framers meant when they adopted them”(6). History makes it clear that the definition is manipulated to meet political needs. According to Nickles, President Ford said of the phrase, “Whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”(1). Also, Nickles continues, is that during 1974, the House Judiciary Committee stated that “historically, Congress had issued Articles of Impeachment in three broad categories. These categories are (1) exceeding the constitutional bounds of the powers of 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. Lawyers and historians still debate the exact meaning of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Their debate has three schools of thought. They are “(1) serious criminality evidenced by breaking existing law; (2) an abuse of office; (3) and the Alexander Hamilton (Federalist Paper #65) of “violation of public trust”(1).
Article I, section 2 of the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the “sole power of Impeachment”(2). This means the House of Representatives has the duty to write up Articles of Impeachment and list any impeachable offenses. The House votes on the Articles of Impeachment. A simple majority vote wins. The Articles are then transferred to the Senate. Select members of the House of Representatives present the evidence to the Senate.
The Senate has the “sole power to try” the impeachment. This power was given to them by Article I, section 3 of the Constitution. If the person being impeached is the President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial. The Vice-President presides over any other impeachment trial. The Senate votes on the Impeachment after all the evidence is presented. A two-thirds majority of votes is needed for a conviction and the expulsion from office (2-3).
The impeachment process began three times in history. President Jackson went through an impeachment trial and was acquitted. President Nixon resigned when Articles of Impeachment were drawn up and more recently, President Clinton finds himself at the beginning of the impeachment process.
Our Founding Fathers struggled with the birth of a nation and how to govern that nation. They were clear in their communications about their expectations of the President. The Framers were very clear about what justifies impeachment and how the impeachment process works. Our Congress has an obligation to impeach the Presidents of less than honorable character. If they do not, they themselves are delinquent in their responsibilities.
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