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Home / Columns / Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Impeach

Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Impeach

It’s often taken as a sort of verdict, but impeachment doesn’t usually imply confirmed guilt or loss of office. It’s a first step towards a kind of trial.

columns Updated: Jan 18, 2020 17:51 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
(HT Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

impeach (verb), To raise doubts about, call into question, discredit, especially someone’s credibility; to bring formal charges against an office holder

Usage: It’s easy enough to impeach Trump’s credibility, given the number of lies and exaggerations he is prone to, but quite another challenge to impeach him formally as unfit to hold the office of President.

The word ‘impeach’ is very much in the news, thanks to the decision of the US House of Representatives to formally impeach the President of the United States and bring him to trial before the Senate. This has only happened twice before in US history, with the unsuccessful impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 (not counting the abortive attempt against President Richard Nixon, which he pre-empted by resigning first), and the impeachment of Donald Trump seems likely to meet the same fate, given his party’s resounding majority in the Senate. But where does the word, with its rather fruity sound, come from?

French, it turns out. In that lovely language, ‘empecher’ means ‘to hinder, stop, impede; capture, trap, ensnare’, and that’s precisely what the English ‘impeachment’ seeks to do. In law, from the late 14th century, it meant broadly “to accuse, bring charges against”, but soon enough it was used to refer specifically to the king or the House of Commons, to bring a formal accusation of treason, misconduct or other high crime against a holder of a high public office.

Still, the word can also be used to refer to any person; if you are accused of misrepresenting facts, for instance, you may draw yourself to your fullest height, pierce your accuser with a furious stare, and ask, “How dare you impeach my credibility?”

Nonetheless, it’s true the word ‘impeach’ is most often understood as referring to holding a public official to account. And formal impeachment is usually the first step to dismissing the official from his office. But there’s some confusion in most people’s minds about which part of that process the word ‘impeach’ relates to. To make it clear, when a public official is impeached, this only means he has been charged, not convicted and removed from office. The President of the United States may be impeached by the House of Representatives, but then must be convicted by the Senate. This means the House has found reason to accuse him formally of wrongdoing; but it is the Senate that has to find him guilty.

The House of Representatives draws up articles of impeachment that itemise the charges and their factual basis. The articles of impeachment, if approved by a simple majority of the members of the House, are then submitted to the Senate, thereby impeaching the President. The Senate then holds a trial, at the conclusion of which each member votes for or against conviction on each article of impeachment.

Two-thirds of the Senate members present must vote in favour of conviction. Once convicted, the President is automatically removed from office. This has never happened in the US, though it has succeeded in a few Latin American countries, when maverick Presidents ran afoul of legislatures which were in the hands of established political parties.

Most people wrongly assume that to ‘impeach’ a President or other high official is to assume his guilt and even dismiss him. Though in some countries the individual is provisionally removed, this is rare, and impeachment is normally not the punishment; it merely precedes the trial.

Impeaching someone sets in motion a legal process that may or may not conclude wrongdoing has taken place and result in a conviction. Since that decision is made, in the US as in India, by elected legislators rather than qualified judges, it is always a political rather than a judicial verdict. That is why it may not make much sense to resort to it unless you are sure beforehand that you have the numbers to prevail.

President Andrew Johnson was acquitted in 1868 by one vote of violating the previous year’s Tenure of Office Act. President Bill Clinton was acquitted in 1998 by a much larger margin, of charges of perjury and obstructing justice in relation to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

President Richard Nixon, however, resigned to avoid inevitable impeachment for the Watergate scandal, and was granted an unconditional pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford. The chances of President Trump finding a two-thirds majority against him in a Republican-dominated Senate are widely seen as close to zero.

Students of Indian history may have noticed that the British have not been impeaching anybody since the famous impeachment of Warren Hastings for his misconduct in India as the East India Company’s Governor-General. At the time, impeachment was the trial of an individual by the House of Lords at the request of the House of Commons and was commonly used as a way to fight out battles between Crown and Parliament.

The British Parliament gave up the practice officially in 1806, partly because several high-profile trials, including that of Hastings (which dragged on for seven years but ended in acquittal), were considered to have brought it into disrepute. The Indian Parliament can also impeach high officials, including the President and judges; it has never done so, its attempts to impeach a judge having prompted that individual’s premature resignation.

Because impeachment and conviction of officials involve the overturning of the normal constitutional procedures by which individuals achieve high office (election, ratification, or appointment) and because it generally requires a two-thirds or similar majority, impeachment is usually reserved for those considered to have committed serious abuses of their public position.

Impeachment exists under constitutional law in many countries around the world, including, aside from the United States and India, Brazil, France, Ireland, the Philippines, Russia and South Korea (which recently successfully impeached and jailed a President for corruption).