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Civics for Citizens: Everything You Need to Know about Impeachment

Everyone’s talking impeachment these days, but are you confused about what that actually means? Are you wondering how we arrived at such a funny word for such a serious political undertaking? We’re bringing back ‘Civics for Citizens’ as a monthly blog series to help you navigate these types of questions, so that we can all stay informed and on top of our game as citizens. Impeachment may be a big topic with hot takes (and peach emojis) flying left and right, but here are the basics you need to know to follow the news like a pro.  

Where does the word “impeachment” come from?

The word “impeach” has roots in Late Latin, Old French, and Late Middle English. From the Latin, we got impedicare, meaning “to catch or entangle,” while the Old French word empeche means to “impede or hinder.” 

Can only Presidents be impeached?

Any civil official can be impeached, including the Vice President, federal judges, heads of agencies, and of course the President. Fifteen of the 19 impeachment cases in U.S. history have involved judges, with one Secretary of War and early Senator in the mix too.

Today, however, Senators cannot be impeached at all. They are instead censured or expelled from Congress via different procedures.

When would Congress pursue impeachment?

The key factor in pursuing impeachment is the potential for harm or injury to society at large as a result of the “misconduct of public men,” regardless of motive or the ability to act with intent. This can include Presidential corruption, tyranny, betrayal of trust to a foreign power, and negligence or incapacity. 

The scope of impeachable offenses has grown and changed over time, but political “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are injurious to the state and society itself remain the primary focus. For a blast from the past, check out this article from the January 1867 issue of The Atlantic, which grapples with the “Causes for Which a President Can Be Impeached.”

What does the impeachment process look like?

In very simple terms, the impeachment process is as follows:

  • First, Congress investigates and decides whether or not they want to pursue impeachment. If after a majority vote the House decides to approve any of the charges, a.k.a. the “Articles of Impeachment,” then the official in question is formally “impeached.”
  • Next, the impeached official faces trial in the Senate, which has the final say on the matter. 
  • Lastly, the Senate must vote on each article separately. Each charge requires two-thirds voting “yes” for conviction. If there are multiple articles of impeachment, it only takes one conviction vote for removal to be automatic. 

Is impeachment like a regular criminal trial?

Impeachment is a noncriminal process, and the most that can happen as a result of impeachment is removal from office. Convicted officials are also barred from holding future office. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be under criminal investigation at the same time as impeachment proceedings. But there’s no possibility of a prison sentence or other criminal consequence as a result of an impeachment conviction.  

Does impeachment always end in removal from office?

Impeached officials aren’t always removed from their post at the end of the whole ordeal. Sometimes, an individual will choose to resign before the process is over, or they’ll be acquitted at the conclusion of their trial. For example, President Bill Clinton was acquitted though we still say he was impeached. On the other hand, President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, right before the House could vote on articles of impeachment. He was never formally impeached, but the process was underway.

Want to learn more? Read…

Cover of the book, "A Citizen's Guide to Impeachment" by Barbara A. Radnofsky

Published by Melville House

A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment,  Barbara A. Radnofsky 

This 80-page primer (and the main source for this post) is a straightforward, but fascinating lens back in time. Radnofsky traces the history of impeachment in the U.S. to the drafting of the Constitution, and to all the debates about the potential for treason, abuses of power, and personal gain at the expense of the people in the newly formed American government.  

She deconstructs the language used in old British law and our own Constitution, including that famous phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” while reinforcing key clarifications throughout the text. The second half of the book runs through all 19 impeachment cases in American history, with a brief overview of the story and key takeaways from each particular case. Whatever your starting point, this is a fantastic guide to help catch you up in a hurry amidst our whirlwind news cycle.  


About the Author

Paige is the Programs and Office Assistant at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She graduated from Emerson College with a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. While in Boston, Paige became involved with her college’s Office of Service Learning and Community Action, completing the AmeriCorps Student Leaders in Service program as a senior. During this time, she volunteered on urban farms alongside high school-aged leaders and mailed packages with a local books-to-prison program, among other opportunities. Paige continues to be passionate about sharing resources and correspondence with incarcerated individuals, as well as volunteering with community-focused farms. Prior to joining AGF, she worked at The Garden Club of America, where she provided administrative support for member garden clubs across the country, in addition to several volunteer-led national committees.