Someone at lunch one day asked if you could impeach an appointed, non-elected Cabinet Secretary. I didn’t think so, but several other people did. I thought it was an interesting question along with the notion I’ve had for some time that the criteria for impeachment might be a little too high, so I decided to investigate. Here’s what I found out.
Impeachment in the U.S. is an expressed power of the legislature that allows for formal charges against a civil officer of government for crimes committed in office. The actual trial on those charges, and subsequent removal of an official on conviction on those charges, is separate from the act of impeachment itself.
Impeachment is analogous to an indictment in regular court proceedings, while trial by the other house is analogous to the trial before judge and jury in regular courts. Typically, the lower house of the legislature will impeach the official and the upper house will conduct the trial.
At the federal level, Article II of the U.S. Constitution (Section 4) states that “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 House of Representatives has the sole power of impeaching, while the U.S. Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments. The removal of impeached officials is automatic upon conviction in the Senate. In Nixon vl. United States (1993), the Supreme Court determined that the federal judiciary cannot review such proceedings.
That’s a pretty high bar.
Maybe the definition should be broadened so it would be easier, more practical to achieve or maybe we should consider other alternatives such as employed in the Parliamentary System; a vote of “no confidence” or a “motion to censure.”
Impeachment can also occur at the state level; state legislatures can impeach state officials, including governors, according to their respective state constitutions.
In our history there have been 19 impeachments of federal officials; 15 were judges, including 13 District Court Judges, one Court of Appeals Judge and one Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase in 1804.
In addition, there was one Cabinet Secretary and one U.S. Senator, John Blount of Tennessee in 1797 impeached.
Filling out that number were two presidents: Bill Clinton in 1988 and Andrew Jackson in 1868.
Contrary to popular belief, both Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were not impeached. They resigned before impeachment might have taken place.
Over the years, political scholars have recognized the difficulty the country faces when the president or other high government official, because of deleterious behavior, has created a constitutional crisis. Impeachment is difficult to come by. The definition is a very high bar to meet.
One alternative scholars proposal is to broaden the definition of impeachable offenses to include grievous errors in foreign affairs or inattention to the duties of their office.
Two other proposals have been offered which have been utilized in parliamentary governments and would certainly be easier to achieve in our system.
A motion of no confidence is a statement or vote which states that a person in a superior position in government is no longer deemed fit to hold that position. This may be based on said person falling short in some respect, failing to carry out obligations, or making choices that other members feel are detrimental. As a parliamentary motion, it demonstrates to the head of state that the elected parliament no longer has confidence in (one or more members of) the appointed government.
A censure motion is different from a no-confidence motion. “No Confidence” leads to compulsory resignation, whereas “Censure” is meant to show disapproval and does not result in a resignation. The censure motion can be against an individual or a group of officials. Censure motions need to state the reasons for the motion while no-confidence motions to not require reasons to be specified.
Either of these proposals would require an amendment to the Constitution, which in and of itself would be difficult to achieve, but it might be interesting and beneficial to have some alternatives to impeachment.