Accountability and Responsibility in the Public Sphere: Impeachment in the Political System of the United States of America

Accountability and Responsibility in the Public Sphere: Impeachment in the Political System of the United States of America

Alexandros Passiatas (Democritus University of Thrace, Greece)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6248-3.ch014


The impeachment process, which is constitutionally based, provides a legislative mechanism for investigating possible illegal acts from the President, the Vice President, and other civil officers of the United States. The impeachment process needs the intervention of the House of the Representatives and the Senate. The House has the responsibility to make the initial research and to determine the possibility of an official's impeachment. If the House decides that this is appropriate, the members of the House vote for the article or the articles of impeachment that explain the specific reasons upon which the impeachment is based. Then these facts and these reasons are presented to the Senate, which has the power to try all the impeachments. It is clear that the impeachment procedure is a very complex mechanism, and the US constitution gives only a skeletal guidance as to the nature of the proceedings letting the House and the Senate fill this void through their rules, procedures, and precedents. Impeachment is explored in this chapter.
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2. The Meaning And The Background Of Impeachment

Impeachment in the United States is an expressed authority of the legislator allowing for formal charges against a civil officer of the government for crimes committed while in office. The actual trial on those charges and the potential subsequent removal of an official after conviction are separate from the act of impeachment itself. Impeachment corresponds to indictment in regular court proceedings, while trial in the other house equals a trial before a judge and a jury in regular courts. Typically, the lower house of legislation impeaches the official while the upper house conducts the trial.

Impeachment is a system originating from England with a different use from that in the United States. The first incidents of English impeachments may have begun as early as in 1376, while the establishment of this procedure has repeatedly been placed in 1283. However, the initiation of the impeachment in England has also been placed in 1399 (Bazan, 2010). Nonetheless, it is certain that the English application is rooted well before the colonial establishment of the practice in the United States.

Before the 14th century, the House of Lords in England used to judge ministers and other officials on their acts in the Kingdom through a process termed “petition of citizens”, where the King was present but the House of Commons did not participate in the procedure. When compared to the previous system, impeachment implies a new institutional development that upgrades the role of the House of Commons by granting more authorities than before.

In England impeachment has been associated with purely political ambitions due to the doctrine ''The King can not do wrong'', while it is observed especially in uneven periods of the English history. Acts leading to impeachment were often comparable to the so-called “political errors”. Therefore, a bad piece of advice to the monarch, poor defensive organization of the Kingdom, maladministration at times of war or the mismanagement of public funds were but a few acts possibly leading to impeachment by the only known way at that time, that of the criminal conviction of those acting as mentioned before (Bazan, 2010).

This is the biggest difference between the system of impeachment in England and the United States. In England impeachment was regarded as a criminal sanction imposed against the rulers and then as a civil penalty. Penalties may have affected the rulers’ estate, personal freedom (through a possible imprisonment or exile) or even threaten their lives. The sole political penalty was disqualification from the public office they held, although only subsequent to a recurring criminal penalty (Loverdos, 1995).

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