The process for removing government officials for malfeasance (wrongdoing or misconduct especially by a public official) or criminal activity. The United States conception of impeachment expands upon the English process in which the House Of Commons brought charges against an aristocrat or official; the House of Lords conducted the trial and rendered the verdict. Political motivations almost always underlie impeachment, therefore significant evidence of wrongdoing has historically been crucial.

In Colonial Times

During The Colonial Era (1607-1775), governors appointed by proprietors and kings of England would clash with colonial assemblies. As tension grew between the colonies and Great Britain, impeachment was an important weapon against these royal officials. The framers of the United States Constitution made the president, vice president, and "all civil officers of the United States" liable to impeachment for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Under the Constitution, impeachments are brought by the House Of Representatives and are tried by the Senate. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote. Punishment is limited to removal from office.

Presidential Impeachments

Three United States presidents have been impeached, though none has been convicted by the Senate. The House Of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875, 17th Pres.) in 1868. They charged that Johnson violated the 1867 Tenure of Office Acts by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The significance of this violation is that Johnson obstructed Reconstruction (1865-1877) -- the Congressional attempt to rebuild and reform the South politically, economically and socially following the Civil War, and to refashion race relations throughout the nation -- by dismissing Stanton. The Senate was one vote short of convicting President Johnson.

The House Judiciary Committee recommended the impeachment of President Richard Nixon (1913-1994, 37th pres.) in 1974 for obstructing the Watergate investigation -- a political espionage and cover-up case during the 1972 presidential campaign involving a break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters -- though he resigned before the House voted impeachment articles.

Articles of impeachment were brought against President Bill Clinton (1946-Present, 42nd pres.) by the House in 1998 for perjury and other charges involved in the effort to conceal his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Senate trial (1999) fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the President.

There Goes The Judge

Of the eighteen impeachments the House of Representatives has approved, nearly all have been judges. Members of Congress have not been subject to impeachment since 1799 when the Senate dismissed the case against Senator William Blount of Tennessee; they declared that a member of Congress was not a 'civil officer' liable to impeachment under the Constitution. The history of judicial impeachment has shown that impeachment has been the consequence of grave corruption or serious misbehavior on the bench.

In the most significant case of impeachment in United States history, Jeffersonian Republicans brought articles of impeachment against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (1743-1811) for abusive partisanship on the bench. President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, 3rd pres.) who disapproved of both the Chase's open political orientation (Federalism), and the institution of lifelong tenure for members of the judiciary, encouraged the House of Representatives to impeach him.

The impeachment was unsuccessful due to the efforts of Aaron Burr -- vice president under Jefferson, wanted in two states for the murder of Alexander Hamilton -- and Chase was acquitted in 1805. This landmark decision confirmed the need for serious proof of wrongdoing to bar the politicization of such trials.

Recent Innovation in Impeachment Policy

In the 1980s, the US Judicial Committee - the top rule-making body for federal courts - established a procedure for the referral of impeachment recommendations. The Senate streamlined impeachment by creating impeachment committees to hear testimony, reducing the need for the entire Senate to become involved in each step of the process. Instead, the Senate now votes after reading committee reports. State legislatures utilize impeachment to remove executive and judicial officials primarily for corruption and other wrongdoing, but not as a check on the abuse of executive power.

Source: Gerhardt, Michael. The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis, 1996.

In the more mundane realm of trials, "impeachment" refers to the discrediting of a witness. In the United States federal court system, impeachment is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. In state courts, state evidence rules apply; these are usually similar, but rarely identical, to the federal rules. This writeup assumes the federal rules apply, but if you don't know this stuff already, don't try to use it in a real trial.

Although the party calling the witness can impeach as part of the direct examination, impeachment is much more common as part of the cross examination: most people aren't too keen on discrediting their own witnesses. A good prosecutor, trial lawyer or defense lawyer knows how to mercilessly impeach their opponent's witnesses, and how to keep their own witnesses from being mercilessly impeached by the other side.

In the old days, there was a "confrontation" requirement: to impeach a witness, you had to bring the issue up while they're on the stand. Nowadays, most jurisdictions allow lawyers to impeach witnesses later on in the trial, but many judges still prefer to impose a confrontation requirement in their courtroom, so impeachment will usually happen as part of the cross.

Since leading questions are allowed (and almost always used) on cross, impeachment can theoretically lead to nasty altercations in the courtroom:

Lawyer: Right after the accident, you were found with a crack pipe in your hand!
(jury recoils in shock)
Witness: Ummmm, no.
Lawyer: And then you took out a nine-iron and clubbed twenty baby seals!
(a little girl in the gallery starts crying)

Fortunately, professional responsibility rules generally prohibit lawyers from alluding to anything they don't reasonably believe to be relevant or supported by evidence, so such exchanges are unlikely to happen in a courtroom, unless the witness is really the root of all evil or the lawyer is looking to get disbarred.

Instead, impeachment is usually based on evidence extrinsic to the direct examination of the witness. This evidence may not be seen by the jury, but both plaintiff/prosecution and defense will likely know about it. Such evidence includes:

  1. Prior inconsistent statements. This is the most common method of impeachment. A popular tactic is for the lawyer to pick out differences between the witness's testimony and deposition, and then read the inconsistent statements out loud, one by one, asking the witness to follow along on a separate copy and "correct me if I'm reading this incorrectly." Written reports, like police reports or medical reports, can also be used in the same way; a lawyer can even try to impeach a witness by using their prior spoken statements, although they'll need proof of the statements if they don't want to look like a putz when the witness says "I don't remember."
  2. Bias or motive. Many witnesses have an ulterior motive to stretch the truth or tell outright lies; maybe they've had a long rivalry with the opposing party, or a strong prejudice against their race or religion. Lawyers have fairly broad leeway to ask about such matters, and if the witness denies them, other evidence can be brought in later to prove the bias or motive exists.
  3. Contradictory facts. If key parts of the witness's story are contradicted by extrinsic evidence, the lawyer can bring in that evidence to impeach the witness's testimony. These contradictions can be introduced later in the trial through other witnesses, although as stated above, many judges prefer to have the contradictions raised on cross-examination before they are proven. When an expert witness says something contradictory to accepted scientific fact, the lawyer can pull out a generally-respected treatise in the field and point out its disagreement with the expert's claim, in much the same manner as introducting a prior inconsistent statement.
  4. Prior convictions. These are subject to several rules designed to keep ex-convicts from being discredited solely because they have a criminal record. Under the Federal Rules, a prior conviction cannot be used to impeach unless it carried a maximum sentence of more than one year in prison, or involved untruthfulness or dishonesty (petty theft comes in; running a red light won't). There are also rules that severely limit the admissibility of convictions as a juvenile, and convictions more than ten years old. Details of the crime usually can't come in, besides the type of crime and the accompanying sentence.
  5. Character. A party can bring in a character witness to impeach another witness by testifying to their "reputation for untruthfulness," or to their broad opinion that the witness is not trustworthy. If this happens, the other party is allowed to provide their own character witnesses to testify to opinions of truthfulness or truthful reputation.
  6. Untruthful conduct. A party can ask a witness about any past conduct that would indicate their untruthfulness. However, they cannot bring in extrinsic evidence to prove that conduct, unless the conduct falls into another kind of impeachment or is relevant to the case itself.

Im*peach"ment (?), n. [Cf. F. empechement.]

The act of impeaching, or the state of being impeached

; as: (a)

Hindrance; impediment; obstruction.


Willing to march on to Calais, Without impeachment. Shak.


A calling to account; arraignment; especially, of a public officer for maladministration


The consequence of Coriolanus' impeachment had like to have been fatal to their state. Swift.


A calling in question as to purity of motives, rectitude of conduct, credibility, etc.; accusation; reproach; as, an impeachment of motives



⇒ In England, it is the privilege or right of the House of Commons to impeach, and the right of the House of Lords to try and determine impeachments. In the United States, it is the right of the House of Representatives to impeach, and of the Senate to try and determine impeachments.

Articles of impeachment. See under Article. -- Impeachment of waste Law, restraint from, or accountability for, injury; also, a suit for damages for injury.



© Webster 1913.

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