Impeachment Crash Course

America’s political stage has been saturated in discussion of President Trump’s impeachment. But what exactly is impeachment and what are the implications of it? It is often difficult to feel comfortable speaking on the matter for many reasons. Some barriers to entry that particularly affect young people are potential backlash from others who hold different political views, fear of saying something that might upset a friend, or not being knowledgeable enough to add anything valuable. However, everyone should enjoy accessible and clear information that isn’t fueled with antiquated jargon. This makes it so that one has a sturdy arsenal to speak if one wishes to add to the discourse, or to simply be comfortable listening and fulfilling one’s civic duty, by being informed. And surely, any act of civil participation is wonderful and essential to democracy. 

In the United States, the Constitution is the law of the land and governs lawmakers (legislators) as much as it does private citizens. The founders of America loved placing checks and balances on the three leading branches so that the people of the nation wouldn’t be endangered by one branch becoming too powerful and corrupt. Impeachment is one check that was placed on the executive and judicial branches. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution states, “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Since this is a check on the judicial and executive branches, the legislative branch, or Congress, holds the power to determine whether or not the person on trial is guilty. Impeachment also isn’t limited to the federal Congress;  each state congress also has this power. Instead of impeaching the president, a state Congress would impeach their governor. 

Congress has two parts - the House of Representatives and the Senate - and each has a role in the impeachment process. The House initiates impeachment and is the only body that can declare it. The other power delegated to the House is to “choose their Speaker and other officers,” outlined in Article 1, Sectin 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution. In the case of President Trump’s impeachment, Nancy Pelosi acted and has been Speaker of the House (and the first woman to hold this position) since January 2019. Impeachment does not mean removal from office, it is simply a legal statement of charges. The Senate’s role is to hold the trial of the impeached government official. For an official to be charged as guilty, two-thirds of Senate members present must vote to convict. If a president is convicted by the Senate, they are thereby removed from office. There were two articles of impeachment issued against Trump, Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Justice, and he was acquitted of both during trial. In United States’ history, only three presidents have been impeached - Andrew Johnson (1868), Bill Clinton (1998), Donald Trump (2019) -  and none have been removed from office. A handful of officials have been removed from office by Congress, but all were judges. 

The Constitution is so important that judges make decisions in court based on it rather than on laws, distinguishing the American judicial system from the systems of other countries. This structure allows for something called “judicial review” where the courts can challenge laws they see as impeding liberties or rights given in the constitution, thus declaring them unconstitutional and protecting the citizens of the US. The cool thing about judicial review is that it’s not limited to use by the courts. Lawmaking bodies, namely state legislatures, can use it to make sure the federal Congress (the national lawmaker) doesn’t pass unconstitutional legislation. This first happened in 1798 via the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions where those prospective states protested and nullified the Alien and Sedition acts passed by Congress at the time. The results of the 2020 impeachment trial resulted in President Donald Trump being acquitted. However, there is a third, more abstract, version of judicial review that has a place in the impeachment discourse. Electing a lawmaker is a form of popular, or voter, judicial review. Congress decided on President Trump’s innocence, but the people of the United States of America will attest their decision come the 2020 Presidential election.