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What Does Impeachment Mean and How Does it Work?

Democratically elected leaders are still subject to the laws of the land. Discover more about the systems in place to hold those in power accountable.
by Tom Anderson | Sep 7 2017
impeachment

/ɪmˈpiːtʃmənt/

a charge of treason or another crime against the state.
a charge of misconduct made against the holder of a public office.

On January 20th, 1649, Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland was tried by the Parliament of England, accused of High Treason against his people. Over the following week, 68 judges weighed up the case, and, on January 27th, they decided Charles’ fate. He was declared guilty and sentenced to death. Just three days later, on January 30th, 1649, he was executed in front of a large crowd on Whitehall.

The execution of Charles I is a rather extreme example of impeachment. Generally speaking, impeachment describes the process of removing an important public official, say the President or Prime Minister, from office because of a misdemeanor.

The charges that can get a leader impeached differ depending on the constitution of each country, but they are usually pretty serious offenses. For example, in the USA, the Constitution declares that a President or other high official can be impeached for the crimes of “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” What offenses high crimes and misdemeanors covers is pretty vague, but it has previously been used to cover crimes such as perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

Luckily nowadays, in most countries, the impeachment process is much less bloody than in Charles’ time. However, this doesn’t mean it’s as straightforward. As it often involves the removal of an elected official from office, most impeachment processes are careful, long, drawn-out affairs, and they are often very confusing to follow.

So, let’s look a bit deeper into the impeachment processes of four nation-states: The United States of America, Brazil, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

United States of America

The system of impeaching government officers was set down in the US Constitution, first drawn up in 1787.

The impeachment procedure begins in the House of Representatives. When a government official is accused, the case is brought before the House to debate, at first in Committee, and then, if there is enough evidence to proceed further, amongst all members of the House. After the whole House of Representatives has considered the impeachment resolution, a vote is taken.

If more than half of Representatives agree with the impeachment, then things proceed to the Senate. The Senate hearings are like a trial, where the accused and the prosecution (represented by appointed members of the House of Representatives) can present their cases, call witnesses, and perform cross-examinations. The whole Senate then votes on whether to uphold the charges, with a two-thirds majority needed to convict. A convicted official is automatically removed from their office, and may also be barred from holding public office in the future also.

Although many public officials have been impeached throughout history, only two US Presidents have been: Andrew Johnson (in 1868) and Bill Clinton (in 1998) and both were found not guilty. If you’re wondering about Richard Nixon, he resigned from office before he could be impeached.

Brazil

Learn more about the impeachment process

The impeachment procedure in Brazil, adopted in 1988, is fairly similar to the US process. As with the US system, impeachment begins with a congressional committee, before continuing to a vote of the lower house and then a trial in the senate.

The Brazilian impeachment system was tested not that long ago, in 2016, with the successful prosecution of the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff was accused of manipulating the government budget by allowing the state-run banks to facilitate illegal loans to the federal government. After a lengthy process in Congress that took almost a year, Rousseff lost the vote in the Senate by 61 votes to 20, well over the two-thirds majority needed.

She was removed from office and replaced by her Vice-President, Michel Temer. Temer shouldn’t get too comfortable in his position, though. There is a current investigation ongoing to impeach him for offenses similar to those of his predecessor.

South Korea

The impeachment method in South Korea is set out in Article 65 of the country’s constitution.

If a government official such as a President or Prime Minister violates the South Korean constitution or other official laws, then they can be impeached by its parliament, the National Assembly.

To impeach the President, a motion against them must get the support of over half the National Assembly. If this number is reached, then 200 of the 300 members must approve the motion. After gaining the support of two-thirds of parliamentarians, the President is then suspended from office as the Constitutional Court decides whether to impeach or acquit. This Court is given 180 to decide their verdict, but, if the President decides to resign from office, the process automatically stops.

The South Koreans have also tested out this process fairly recently: in 2016, President Park Geun-hye was successfully impeached after judges in the Constitutional Court ruled against her by 8-0.

United Kingdom

Books

Finally, we reach the United Kingdom, the place where Charles I was so bloodily executed almost 400 years ago. Unbelievably, the process of impeachment in the UK today is still pretty similar to how it was in the sixteenth century.

Let’s imagine it’s the Prime Minister being impeached. The procedure would begin in the House of Commons; a Member of Parliament (MP) will raise a Point of Order in the House and move that the Prime Minister should be impeached. Then, the defending will be placed in the custody of Black Rod, the senior officer in the House of Lords.

The actual trial would probably take place in Westminster Hall (the same place where Charles I was tried) and members of the House of Lords would act as jury. The House of Commons would appoint managers for the prosecution and the Prime Minister would be able to call witnesses to his defense. After the trial, the Lord Chancellor would ask the Lords if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the verdict is ‘guilty’ then the judgment is formally declared in the House of Lords with the House of Commons having the final say on the sentence.

This rather antiquated procedure hasn’t actually been used since 1806 when Henry Dundas, the First Lord of the Admiralty was impeached (and found innocent). That said, there was a failed campaign in the twenty-first century to impeach Tony Blair over his role in the Iraq War. Had Blair actually been impeached and found guilty, he would have had some comfort that he wouldn’t have faced the same fate as Charles I. The death penalty in Britain was formally abolished for the crime of High Treason in 1998 (by Tony Blair’s government!).

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