Who Can be Impeached?
Only two U.S. presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) have been impeached, neither of whom were removed from office. However, 17 other U.S. officials, most of them judges, also have been impeached through the same legal authority and process. While the term "impeachment" typically is associated with the Commander in Chief, the Constitution clearly states who can be impeached: "The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States."
Federal officers who are impeached face "removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States." They also may be tried for the same offenses in criminal court.
State governments (except for Oregon) also have impeachment procedures in place but, like federal impeachments, they're rare. There are certain legal standards and procedures for federal impeachments, but state laws and processes vary.
Who Can Be Impeached: The Basics
Per the Constitution, any civil federal officer may be impeached for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." This means representatives, cabinet members, and even Supreme Court justices may be impeached. The term "civil officer" has been interpreted to include all U.S. officers holding their appointments under the federal government, including executive and judicial officers, members of the House and Senate, and those in all levels of government.
Tennessee Senator William Blount, who was impeached in 1797 for conspiring with Great Britain (charges were dismissed after he was voted out of office), remains the only federal legislator ever to be impeached. Others include 14 federal judges, one associate justice of the Supreme Court, and a Secretary of War.
Impeachable Offenses and Historical Examples
What constitutes an impeachable offense has been the subject of debate throughout U.S. history, ranging from "whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be" to an indictable crime. Federal judges and justices, however, arguably have a much lower bar for meeting the threshold for impeachment, since the Constitution states that they "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour."
Actual impeachment charges have included intoxication on the bench, waging war against the U.S. government, sexual assault, abuse of power, perjury, and obstruction of justice. Below are some examples of federal officers who've been impeached and a brief summary of the charges filed against them:
- Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (1804) - Officially charged with "arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials" after handing down a controversial grand jury charge that many believed was openly hostile to Republicans (he campaigned for John Adams in 1800). He was acquitted.
- President Andrew Johnson (1868) - Charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act for removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and attempting to replace him with General Ulysses S. Grant while the Congress was out of session. He was acquitted.
- Judge Samuel B. Kent (2009) - A U.S. circuit court judge for the Southern district of Texas, Kent was impeached for lying to investigators who were looking into allegations that he sexually abused two female employees. He resigned before completion of the impeachment trial.
Impeachment at the State Level
At the state level, civil officers who can be impeached include judges, legislators, governors, and other officials throughout the ranks, generally mirroring the federal impeachment process. Several governors have been impeached and eight have been removed from office.
Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, for example, was impeached on corruption charges in 2009 after the Illinois House of Representatives voted 117-1 in favor of the proceedings. In 1988, Arizona Governor Evan Mecham was impeached, convicted by the Arizona Senate, and removed from office for his failure to disclose a $350,000 loan made by an attorney who was under investigation for fraud.
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