With political fervor in the United States at an all-time high, many Americans find themselves increasingly confused by intense political jargon and complicated legal procedures. What exactly is impeachment, and what role does the rule of law play in it?
Impeachment is the process of removing the President of the United States, a power granted to the U.S. Congress in the Constitution. The Constitution clearly describes the process of impeachment from start to finish, and endows certain privileges to both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Nonetheless, impeachment is largely a political act, and the role of law often takes a backseat in the process.
Article 1 of the Constitution grants The House of Representatives the sole “Power of Impeachment”, and dictates that the U.S. Senate “shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.” Impeachment has justifiably high standards; a president or vice president may only be impeached for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
In that regard, impeachment takes a step away from the law, and a step close toward politics. It is the U.S. Congress which truly decides whether an offense is impeachable; all that truly matters is whether enough representatives in the House support beginning the process.
Naturally, this renders the process vulnerable to potential political favoritism; the majority party in the U.S. congress may only decide to impeach a president when it’s politically favorable to do so, rather than when there’s been a potential violation of the law.
The process begins when a congressman drafts articles of impeachment, at which point the House of Representatives will vote on it. If at least one of the articles receives a majority vote, it means the president has been impeached, and it is passed on to the Senate for trial.
If a president is being tried before the Senate, the process will be overseen by the Chief Justice of the United States. Once the Senate considers the articles of impeachment, it will summon the accused party to appear, either in person or through legal counsel. The respondent does not necessarily have to appear before the Senate, at which point it is assumed they are pleading “not guilty.”
The Senate then sets a trial date, witnesses are subpoenaed, and evidence and testimony are poured over. The entirety of the U.S. Senate then meets and deliberates in a closed session; two successfully convict the person of impeachment, the Senate must have a two-thirds vote.
Thus, the President of the United States is either successfully impeached, or not. If he has been impeached, the Senate may then choose to vote on whether to bar him from office in the future, through a simple majority vote.