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Impeachment is the process by which a legislative body formally levels charges against a high official of Government. Impeachment does not necessarily mean removal from office; it is only a formal statement of charges, akin to an indictment in criminal law, and is thus only the first step towards removal. Once an individual is impeached, he or she must then face the possibility of conviction via legislative vote, which then entails the removal of the individual from office.

Because impeachment and conviction of officials involves an overturning of the normal Constitutional procedures by which individuals achieve high office (election, ratification, or appointment) and because it generally requires a supermajority, it is usually only reserved for those deemed to have committed serious abuses of their office.

Impeachment has its origins in English law but fell out of use in the 18th century. It exists under constitutional law in many nations around the world, including the United States, Russia, the Philippines and the Republic of Ireland.

Impeachment in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the power of impeachment is vested in the House of Commons. The charges are formed in "Articles of Impeachment," each article detailing a separate allegation. The House of Commons appoints managers, who act as prosecutors in the trial. The mover of the impeachment is commanded to go to the House of Lords and then declare that the defendant is impeached "in the name of the House of Commons, and all the Commons of the United Kingdom."

The case is heard by the House of Lords, with the Lord Chancellor presiding. The hearing is like an ordinary trial, as both sides are allowed to call witnesses and present evidence. At the end of the hearing, the Lord Chancellor puts the question on the first article to each member in order of seniority, commencing with the most junior peer, and ending with himself, and after all have voted, proceeds to deal with any remaining articles similarly. Upon being called, a Lord must rise and declare upon his honour, Guilty or Not Guilty. After all of the articles are voted upon, and if the defendant is found guilty, the Commons may move for judgment; the Lords may not declare the punishment until the Commons have so moved. The Lords may then provide whatever punishment they find fit, within the law. A Royal Pardon cannot be granted to excuse the defendant from trial, but a Pardon is grantable to a convicted defendant.

The Parliament has held the power of impeachment since mediŠval times. Originally, the House of Lords held that only members of the peerage (nobles) could be impeached, as the nobility would be tried by their peers, the Lords, while commoners ought to be tried by their peers, other commoners in a jury. However, in 1681, the Commons declared that they had the right to impeach whomsoever they please, and the Lords have respected such a resolution.

After the reign of Edward IV, impeachment fell into disuse, the bill of attainder becoming the preferred form of dealing with undesirable subjects of the Crown. However, during the reign of James I and thereafter, impeachments became more popular, as they did not require the assent of the Crown, while bills of attainder did, thus allowing Parliament to resist royal attempts to dominate Parliament. The procedure has, over time, fallen into disuse. The principles of "responsible government" require that the Prime Minister and other executive officers be responsible to Parliament, rather than to the Sovereign. Thus, if the Commons wished, they could easily cause the removal of such an officer without a long, drawn-out impeachment. The last two cases of impeachment were of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India between 1789 and 1795, and Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1806.

Impeachments in the United States

The impeachment trial of
Bill Clinton (1999): William H. Rehnquist
presides. Beside the quarter-circular tables on the left are the House
managers; the President's personal counsel is seated on the right.

In the United States impeachment at the Federal level is reserved for those who may have committed "high crimes and misdemeanors." In the case of the President, Vice President, and other executive officers, removal is automatic upon conviction. Judges, however, are not automatically removed.

The federal procedure in the United States involves a vote for impeachment in the House of Representatives on Articles of Impeachment, as in the United Kingdom. Those voting in favour of impeachment may then vote to appoint managers. The hearing is conducted in the Senate. In the case of the impeachment of a President, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court presides over the proceedings. Otherwise, the Vice President, in his capacity of President of the Senate, or otherwise the President pro tempore of the Senate (Temporary President) presides.

The proceedings are conducted, like in the United Kingdom, in the form of a trial, with each side having the right to call witnesses and perform cross-examinations. Senators must also take an oath or affirmation that they will perform their duties honestly and with due diligence, as opposed to the British Lords, who vote upon their honour. The hearing requires a simple majority of the Senators as a quorum. After the hearing the deliberations are held in private. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority. The Senate may vote thereafter to punish the individual only by removing him from office, barring him from holding future office, or both. Alternatively, it may impose no punishment. But in the case of executive officers, removal is automatic upon conviction. The defendant remains liable to criminal prosecution. The President may not in any case use his power of Pardon during impeachment, but may, as usual, pardon a defendant in the case of a criminal prosecution.

So grave is this power of impeachment, and so conscious is the Congress of this solemn power, that impeachment proceedings have been initiated in the House only sixty-two times since 1789. Only seventeen federal officers have been impeached: two presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who were both acquitted), one cabinet officer, one senator and thirteen federal judges. The impeachment of the Senator, William Blount, was overruled on the grounds that legislators did not qualify as civil officers of the United States. Of the remaining cases, two were dismissed before trial because the individuals had left office; seven had ended in acquittal, and seven in conviction. Each of the seven Senate convictions has involved a federal judge.

Impeachment can also occur in the United States at the state level. State legislatures can impeach state officials, including governors. Impeachment and removal of governors has happened occasionally throughout the history of the United States, usually for corruption charges. The last impeachment of a governor was that of Fife Symington, governor of Arizona, who was removed in September 1997.