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About Impeachment | Historical Overview

In The Federalist, No. 65, Alexander Hamilton wrote that impeachment is "a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men" accused of violating the “public trust.” Hamilton and his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention knew that the history of impeachment as a constitutional process dated from 14th-century England, when the fledgling Parliament sought to make the king's advisers accountable. By the mid-15th century, impeachment had fallen into disuse in England, but in the early 17th century, the excesses of the English kings prompted Parliament to revive its impeachment power. Even as the Constitution's framers toiled in Philadelphia in 1787, the impeachment trial of British official Warren Hastings was in progress in London and avidly followed in America. Hastings, who was eventually acquitted, was charged with oppression, bribery, and fraud as colonial administrator and first governor-general in India.

The American colonial governments and early state constitutions followed the British pattern of trial before the upper legislative body on charges brought by the lower house. Despite these precedents, controversy arose at the Constitutional Convention about whether the Senate should act as the court of impeachment. Opposing that role for the Senate, James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney asserted that it would make the president too dependent on the legislative branch. They suggested as alternative trial bodies the Supreme Court or the chief justices of the state supreme courts. Hamilton and others argued, however, that such bodies would be too small and susceptible to corruption. In the end, after much wrangling, the framers selected the Senate as the trial forum. As Hamilton explained in The Federalist, No. 65:

The Convention thought the Senate the most fit depository of this important trust. Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel confidence enough in its own situation, to preserve unawed and uninfluenced the necessary impartiality between an individual accused, and the representatives of the people, his accusers?

The framers also debated the definition of impeachable crimes. Early proposals suggested that the president and other officials could be removed on impeachment and conviction for "corrupt conduct" or for "malpractice or neglect of duty." Later, the wording was changed to "treason, bribery, or corruption," and then to "treason or bribery" alone. Contending that "treason or bribery" was too narrow a definition, George Mason proposed adding "mal-administration" but switched to "other high crimes and misdemeanors against the state" when Madison commented that "mal-administration" was too broad. A final revision defined impeachable offenses as "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Rule XI

Impeachment trials can require a large amount of the Senate’s time. In 1934, the Senate adopted a new impeachment rule that allows the Senate to delegate a portion of the impeachment trial process to a committee.

During the long impeachment trial of Judge Charles Swayne in 1905, Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts proposed that a special committee, not the full Senate, hear evidence in an impeachment trial. Although the Senate had always managed impeachment as a whole body, the Swayne case had provided ample evidence of the burdensome nature of impeachment trials. Hoar's proposal was referred to the Committee on Rules, but the committee took no action.

The 1933 trial of Judge Harold Louderback consumed nearly all of the month of May during the First Hundred Days of the New Deal era, one of the busiest legislative periods in congressional history. Frustration grew in the Senate as witness after witness took up senators’ time, keeping them from vitally important legislative business. When the Senate finally voted on May 24, 1933, to acquit Louderback, calls for procedural reform rose again. In 1934 Senator Henry Ashurst of Arizona, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, resurrected Hoar’s 1905 proposal and offered the resolution that became Rule XI of the Senate impeachment rules, providing:

That in the trial of any impeachment the Presiding Officer of the Senate, if the Senate so orders, shall appoint a committee of senators to receive evidence and take testimony at such times and places as the committee may determine.

When Florida district judge Halsted Ritter was impeached in 1936, some senators questioned whether Rule XI was constitutional and, following the request of House managers, the Senate did not utilize a trial committee. Fifty years passed before the Senate conducted another impeachment trial. The impeachment of Harry E. Claiborne in 1986 finally put Rule XI into action, and the Senate established a special impeachment committee to hear evidence and report to the full Senate. Likewise, Senate impeachment committees considered evidence in the cases of Alcee Hastings (1989), Walter Nixon, Jr. (1989), and G. Thomas Porteous, Jr. (2010), all of whom were convicted and removed from office. Nixon challenged the use of an impeachment committee on constitutional grounds, but in 1993, in the case Nixon v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the Senate’s right to determine its own procedures, including the use of a trial committee.

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