Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution says that the House of Representatives brings charges of impeachment to remove a president, vice president or other civil officer, such as a judge. The Senate conducts the trial and decides whether person is to be removed from office.
A process for the impeachment of the president, vice president and civil officers, such as federal judges, is included in the Constitution in Article I, Sections 2 and 3; Article II, Section 4; and Article III, Section 2. Removal from office requires impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate. The chief justice of the United States presides at presidential impeachment trials. Grounds for impeachment are “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
In the Federalist Papers, Nos. 65 and 66, framer Alexander Hamilton defends the decision to give impeachment power to the House and the power to try and convict to the Senate, rather than to the U.S. Supreme Court or another judicial department.
The House votes to impeach Sen. William Blount of Tennessee, making him the first federal official to be impeached. The crime is treason, stemming from his involvement in a plot to help the British seize the territories of Louisiana and the Floridas from Spain. The next day, July 8, the Senate expels Blount, who returns to Tennessee and is elected to the state Senate. Despite his expulsion, the Senate proceeds with an impeachment trial, unattended by Blount, and votes to dismiss the charges Jan. 11, 1799.
John Pickering, judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, becomes the first federal official to be found guilty on impeachment charges. The House impeached him March 2, 1803. He is widely believed to be insane and reportedly appeared in court drunk at times. Other times, he failed to appear at all. Pickering, who served on the bench nine years, is removed after he is convicted by the Senate.
Judge John Pickering of New Hampshire is the first federal judge to be removed from office after serving nine years on the bench. After being impeached by the House of Representatives in February 1803, he stands trial before Vice President Aaron Burr and the Senate. The trial ends with a guilty verdict and a 19-9 impeachment vote along party lines on March 12. News reports from the time claimed that Pickering showed signs of mental illness while he was on the bench and that his impeachment stemmed from accusations of smuggling, political favoritism, greed, drunkenness and insanity.
The Jeffersonian Republicans in the House of Representatives vote to impeach Justice Samuel Chase, a Federalist who had served on the Supreme Court since 1796. He is accused of behaving in an “arbitrary, oppressive, and unjust” manner on the bench. The Senate will conduct a trial in 1805, in which Chase defends himself by declaring that he is being prosecuted for his political convictions rather than for having committed any “high crimes or misdemeanors,” as the Constitution specifies. Six Republicans join with nine Federalist senators to acquit Chase on all counts. He will remain on the Supreme Court until he dies in 1811.
After serving eight years on the U.S. Supreme Court, Samuel Chase of Maryland becomes the only justice to be impeached. But on March 1, 1805, the Senate fails to convict him and Chase serves seven more years, until his death. The charges were political, instigated by Republican President Thomas Jefferson after Chase, an ardent Federalist, expressed his views from the bench.
James H. Peck, named in 1822 to the U.S. District Court for the District of Missouri, becomes the third judge to be impeached. He is charged with misusing contempt power. Apparently, when Peck ruled against a client of attorney Luke Lawless’, the lawyer sent an anonymous letter rebutting the decision to a St. Louis newspaper. Peck learned of the letter, jailed the lawyer for a day and revoked his right to practice law for 18 months. The Senate trial ends with Peck’s acquittal on Jan. 31, 1831.
The Senate takes one day to convict West H. Humphreys and remove him from the bench in the U.S. District Court for Tennessee. The House impeached Humphreys on May 6, 1862, for supporting the Confederate rebellion preceding the Civil War. After Tennessee seceded from the Union, Humphreys accepted an appointment to be a judge on the Confederate District Court of Tennessee. He did not resign his U.S. judgeship. The Senate bars Humphreys from ever holding another federal post.
The House votes to impeach Andrew Johnson. His Senate trial ends May 26, 1868, one vote short of conviction. The impeachment symbolizes the struggle over national reunification after the Civil War, specifically over how to treat Southern states. Johnson aims to carry out the more lenient policies of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. Congressional Republicans seek a tougher stance designed to protect newly freed blacks. Johnson is impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act, established to keep him from removing civil officers without Senate approval. He labels the act unconstitutional, an opinion the U.S. Supreme Court will endorse in 1926.
The House impeaches Mark William Delahay of the U.S. District Court in Kansas. Delahay resigns before the Senate acts on the charges, which include public intoxication. Allegations of corrupt dealings also surfaced. Delahay’s appointment to the judgeship by President Abraham Lincoln caused widespread consternation. Observers considered him lacking in experience for the post, and questions were raised about his character as well. His Senate confirmation was viewed as a testament to his long friendship with the president.
Secretary of War William Belknap hands his resignation to President Ulysses Grant and bursts into tears shortly before the House votes to impeach him on charges of bribery and corruption. Despite the resignation, the Senate proceeds with a trial, and on Aug. 1, 1876, a majority finds against Belknap on all charges. But each vote falls short of the two-thirds majority needed, and he is acquitted. No further action is taken against Belknap, whose lavish parties and well-dressed first and second wives stirred initial suspicion about his activities.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles H. Swayne, Northern District of Florida, is impeached for filing false travel vouchers, improper use of private railroad cars, unlawfully jailing two attorneys for contempt, and living outside his district. On Feb. 27, 1905, after a trial of more than two months, senators refuse to convict Swayne, saying that his offenses are not “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Massachusetts Sen. George F. Hoar proposes that in future impeachment trials, a Senate committee assemble and listen to evidence, then recommend action to the whole body. Eventually, his proposal is included in the Senate impeachment rules.
The House impeaches Judge Robert W. Archbald of the federal Commerce Court on 13 charges, including the solicitation of gifts from litigants and attorneys, and bringing the judiciary into disrepute. On Jan. 13, 1913, the Senate finds him guilty on five of the 13 charges and removes him from office. The Commerce Court, which began operating in February 1911, exists through December 1913, handling cases related to orders of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Judge George W. English of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois resigns days before his impeachment trial is to begin. President Calvin Coolidge accepts his resignation. The Senate dismisses charges against him. English was impeached on April 1, 1926, for verbally abusing lawyers, litigants and jurors, as well as for corruption and showing favoritism. During the impeachment vote, two representatives nearly came to blows over the possibility that the need to vote on the matter would cut into the House’s Easter recess.
Judge Harold Louderback of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is impeached. He is charged with conspiracy in the appointment of bankruptcy receivers. The Senate acquits him on May 24, 1933, after a trial during one of the busiest periods in U.S. legislative history. The lengthy process again prompts a call for impeachment trials to be conducted by committee. And, in 1934, Sen. Henry Ashurst of Arizona proposes what will become Rule XI upon adoption in 1935. From then on, a committee will be appointed unless the Senate votes for a full-chamber trial.
The Senate convicts U.S. District Court Judge Halsted L. Ritter of the Southern District of Florida on one of seven impeachment charges. He is removed from office. Ritter was impeached March 2, 1936, for a wide range of improprieties, which included practicing law while a judge, filing false income tax returns, attempted embezzlement, and bringing the judiciary into disrepute. He is found not guilty on the first six charges, but is convicted for bringing “his court into scandal and disrepute.” The 56-28 vote provides the minimum margin needed to convict.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration recommends technical changes in the impeachment rules adopted in 1868 for President Andrew Johnson’s trial. When impeachment of President Richard Nixon seems imminent, the committee is instructed to review those rules. Members continued their review after Nixon’s resignation, producing these recommendations. Nothing will be done with them until 1986, when they will be incorporated. They will be used in preparation for the trials of three federal judges between 1986 and 1989, and for President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trial.
President Richard Nixon resigns, the first U.S. chief executive to do so. The House Judiciary Committee approves three articles of impeachment, on July 27, 29 and 30, 1974, and Senate leaders from his party, the GOP, tell Nixon that they will vote to convict. If convicted, Nixon would have lost retirement pay, benefits and expenses for a small staff. At the center of the controversy were two break-ins in spring 1972 at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex. Audiotapes, which the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release, revealed his complicity in a cover-up of the break-in.
The Senate convicts U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Claiborne of the District of Nevada on impeachment charges and removes him from office. The House voted July 22, 1986, to impeach Claiborne, who was convicted in federal court on Aug. 10, 1984, of income tax fraud. Impeachment was considered unavoidable because Claiborne had refused to resign his judgeship and continued to draw his salary in prison. Claiborne has maintained that he is the victim of a government vendetta. He serves a 17-month prison term before being released in October 1987.
The Senate convicts U.S. District Court Judge Alcee L. Hastings and removes him from the bench in the Southern District of Florida. The House impeached him Aug. 3, 1988, on charges that included conspiracy to take a bribe. He had been acquitted of most of the charges in a 1983 criminal trial. But in 1987, a panel of judges found that he had perjured himself to win acquittal and advised impeachment action. Hastings appeals his Senate conviction; it is remanded. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that courts lack jurisdiction to review Senate impeachment action.
The Senate convicts Walter L. Nixon Jr., chief federal judge for the Southern District Court of Mississippi, and removes him from office. Nixon was impeached by the House on May 10, 1989, for perjuring himself before a grand jury. He had been convicted in 1986 on perjury charges and sentenced to five years in prison. He resided in a halfway house during his Senate trial. Nixon was drawing his judicial salary and could have returned to work after finishing his sentence. He appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rules that courts lack jurisdiction to review Senate impeachment action. Nixon returns to law practice in 1993.
William Jefferson Clinton becomes the second U.S. president to be impeached. The House charges against Clinton are perjury and obstruction of justice. The impeachment is rooted in a series of events triggered by a lawsuit filed in 1994 by Paula Jones. She charged that Clinton made sexual advances on her when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. The suit led to an investigation of the president’s relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. The Senate acquits Clinton on Feb. 12, 1999. William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States, presides at the trial.