Policy Analysis No. 318

Impeachment: A Constitutional Primer

By Jason J. Vicente
September 18, 1998

Executive Summary

As the scandal surrounding the Clinton administration grows, the possibility of impeachment looms ever larger. It is an appropriate time, therefore, to examine the function and history of the impeachment provisions of the American Constitution.

The Constitution divides the impeachment power between the two houses of Congress. The House of Representatives has the “sole Power of Impeachment” while the Senate has the “sole Power to try all impeachments.” That division of responsibility guards against potential abuse of the impeachment power. Only the House can initiate the impeachment process. But the Senate determines if the charges are appropriate and if the evidence warrants conviction.

Over the course of American history, the House of Representatives has impeached 15 individuals, including a president, 12 judges, a senator, and a Cabinet member. The Senate has convicted 7 of the 15.

Although there is a debate among academic scholars concerning the range of possible impeachable offenses, most agree that indictable offenses fall within the class of impeachable offenses. There is a fundamental inconsistency, they argue, between a president’s oath to faithfully execute the law and his having himself committed offenses indictable under that law.

But beyond that, the office of the presidency is an office of trust and honor. The winner of a presidential election has only a qualified right to enter and hold the office of the presidency. He cannot assume the office without taking the constitutional oath. If a president should thereafter abrogate his oath, Congress has a responsibility to vindicate the Constitution and the rule of law it secures.

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Jason J. Vicente is a recent graduate of the Boston University School of Law and is presently a law clerk at the Massachusetts Superior Court in Boston.