A History of Federal Impeachment in the United States

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Impeachment is a process that can result in the removal from office of a high-ranking government official. The concept has its roots in England, where the first recorded impeachment took place in 1376. The impeachment of English officials was sporadic and ended in the 19th Century.

America's Founding Fathers included the concept in the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 4 reads thus:

"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."

In impeachment proceedings, the members of the House of Representatives serve in the role of a grand jury, deciding whether to bring an indictment against a particular individual. If a simple majority of the House votes for such an indictment, then the individual faces charges of Constitution impeachment. Such charges as referred to as Articles of Impeachment. The next step is a trial, and the people deciding the individual's guilty or innocence are the members of the U.S. Senate. The Chief Justice of the United States presides over an impeachment trial. If a two-thirds majority of the Senate votes to convict the individual facing impeachment, then the individual is convicted and removed from office. The Senate can further, by a simple majority, declare that the convicted individual can never again be eligible to hold public office.

The House has begun impeachment proceedings more than 60 times, but only 20 have resulted in full impeachments. Three U.S. Presidents, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump have been impeached. Clinton, Johnson, and Trump were acquitted by the Senate, Johnson in 1868, Clinton in 1998, and Trump in 2019. A fourth President, Richard Nixon, resigned in the face of impeachment proceedings. Another President, John Tyler, was the target of impeachment proceedings with regard to the fiery debate over states' rights, but the full House did not approve the measure.

One U.S. Senator, William Blount of Tennessee, was impeached. In 1797, the House voted to impeach Blount on charges of conspiracy in relation to an attempt by Great Britain to take control of territories controlled by Spain in what is now Florida and Louisiana. He was removed from office by the Senate.

One Cabinet member, Secretary of War William Belknap, was impeached in 1876, on charges of bribery; he was acquitted.

One U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, was impeached in 1804, on charges of political bias; he was acquitted.

The others impeached were federal judges:

  • John Pickering, a member of the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire, was impeached in 1803 on charges of unlawful handling of property claims and being drunk while on the bench; he was found guilty and removed from office.
  • James Peck, a member of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Tennessee, was impeached in 1830 on charges of abuse of power; he was acquitted.
  • West Humphreys, a member of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Tennessee, was impeached in 1862 for declaring war against the U.S. Government and refusing to convene his court. (This was during the Civil War.) He was found guilty, removed from office, and declared ineligible to hold future office.
  • Mark Delahay, a member of the U.S. District Court of Kansas, was impeached in 1873 for being drunk on the bench; he resigned before his impeachment trial.
  • Charles Swayne, a member of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida, was impeached in 1904 on charges of abuse of power; he was acquitted.
  • Robert Archbald, a member of the U.S. Commerce Court, was impeached in 1912, on charges of improper business relationship with those who came before him; he was found guilty, removed from office, and declared ineligible to hold future office.
  • George English, a member of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois, was impeached in 1926 on charges of abuse of power; he resigned before being tried.
  • Harold Louderback, a member of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, was impeached in 1933 on charges of favoritism; he was acquitted.
  • Halsted Ritter, a member of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, was impeached in 1936 on charges of favoritism; he was found guilty and removed from office.
  • Harry Claiborne, a member of the U.S. District Court for Nevada, was impeached in 1986 of charges of income tax evasion; he was found guilty and removed from office.
  • Alcee Hastings, a member of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, was impeached in 1988 on charges of perjury and bribery conspiracy; he was found guilty and removed from office.
  • Walter Nixon, a member of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, was impeached in 1989 on charges of perjury; he was found guilty and removed from office.
  • Samuel Kent, a member of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, was impeached in 2009 on charges of assault, obstruction of justice, and interfering with an official proceeding; he resigned during this trial.
  • Thomas Porteous, Jr., a member of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, was impeached in 2010 on charges of bribery and perjury; he was found guilty, removed from office, and declared ineligible to hold future office.

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