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The Constitution deals with the subject of impeachment and conviction at six places. The scope of the power is set out in Article II, Section 4:
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. Other provisions deal with procedures and consequences. Article I, Section 2 states:
The House of Representatives ... shall have the sole Power of Impeachment. Similarly, Article I, Section 3, describes the Senate's role:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the
Members present. The same section limits the consequences of judgment in cases of impeachment:
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless bo liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Pun
ishment, according to Law. Of lesser significance, although mentioning the subject, are: Article II, Section 2:
The President ... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and
Cases of Impeachment.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury.... Before November 15, 1973 a number of Resolutions calling for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon had been introduced in the House of Representatives, and had been referred by the Speaker of the House, Hon. Carl Albert, to the Committee on the Judiciary for consideration, investigation and report. On November 15, anticipating the magnitude of the Committee's task, the House voted
funds to enable the Committee to carry out its assignment and in that regard to select an inquiry staff to assist the Committee.
On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives by a vote of 410 to 4 "authorized and directed” the Committee on the Judiciary "to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States of America."
To implement the authorization (H. Res. 803) the House also provided that “For the purpose of making such investigation, the committee is authorized to require . by subpoena or otherwise ... the attendance and testimony of any person ... and ... the production of such things; and ... by interrogatory, the furnishing of such information, as it deems necessary to such investigation."
This was but the second time in the history of the United States that the House of Representatives resolved to investigate the possibility of impeachment of a President. Some 107 years earlier the House had investigated whether President Andrew Johnson should be impeached. Understandably, little attention or thought has been given the subject of the presidential impeachment process during the intervening years. The Inquiry Staff, at the request of the Judiciary Committee, has prepared this memorandum on constitutional grounds for presidential impeachment. As the factual investigation progresses, it will become possible to state more specifically the constitutional, legal and conceptual framework within which the staff and the Committee work.
Delicate issues of basic constitutional law are involved. Those issues cannot be defined in detail in advance of full investigation of the facts. The Supreme Court of the United States does not reach out, in the abstract, to rule on the constitutionality of statutes or of conduct. Cases must be brought and adjudicated on particular facts in terms of the Constitution. Similarly, the House does not engage in abstract, advisory or hypothetical debates about the precise nature of conduct that calls for the exercise of its constitutional powers; rather, it must await full development of the facts and understanding of the events to which those facts relate.
What is said here does not reflect any prejudgment of the facts or any opinion or inference respecting the allegations being investigated. This memorandum is written before completion of the full and fair factual investigation the House directed be undertaken. It is intended to be a review of the precedents and available interpretive materials, seeking general principles to guide the Committee.
This memorandum offers no fixed standards for determining whether grounds for impeachment exist. The framers did not write a fixed standard. Instead they adopted from English history a standard sufficiently general and flexible to meet future circumstances and events, the nature and character of which they could not foresee.
The House has set in motion an unusual constitutional process, conferred solely upon it by the Constitution, by directing the Judiciary Committee to "investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach.” This action was not partisan. It was supported by the overwhelming majority of both political parties. Nor was it intended to obstruct or weaken the presidency. It was supported
by Members firmly committed to the need for a strong presidency and a healthy executive branch of our government. The House of Representatives acted out of a clear sense of constitutional duty to resolve issues of a kind that more familiar constitutional processes are unable to resolve.
To assist the Committee in working toward that resolution, this memorandum reports upon the history, purpose and meaning of the constitutional phrase, “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."
II. The Historical Origins of Impeachment
The Constitution provides that the President“... shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The framers could have written simply "or other crimes”—as indeed they did in the provision for extradition of criminal offenders from one state to another. They did not do that. If they had meant simply to denote seriousness, they could have done so directly. They did not do that either. They adopted instead a unique phrase used for centuries in English parliamentary impeachments, for the meaning of which one must look to history.
The origins and use of impeachment in England, the circumstances under which impeachment became a part of the American constitutional system, and the American experience with impeachment are the best available sources for developing an understanding of the function of impeachment and the circumstances in which it may become appropriate in relation to the presidency.
A. THE ENGLISH PARLIAMENTARY PRACTICE Alexander Hamilton wrote, in No. 65 of the Federalist, that Great Britain had served as “the model from which [impeachment] has been borrowed.” Accordingly, its history in England is useful to an understanding of the purpose and scope of impeachment in the United States.
Parliament developed the impeachment process as a means to exercise some measure of control over the power of the King. An impeachment proceeding in England was a direct method of bringing to account the King's ministers and favorites—men who might otherwise have been beyond reach. Impeachment, at least in its early history, has been called "the most powerful weapon in the political armoury, short of civil war." 1 It played a continuing role in the struggles between King and Parliament that resulted in the formation of the unwritten English constitution. In this respect impeachment was one of the tools used by the English Parliament to create more responsive and responsible government and to redress imbalances when they occurred.2
The long struggle by Parliament to assert legal restraints over the unbridled will of the King ultimately reached a climax with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. In the course of that struggle, Parliament sought to exert restraints over the King by removing those of his ministers who most effectively advanced the King's absolutist pur
1 Plucknett, "Presidential Address" reproduced in 3 Transactions, Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, 145 (1952),
· See generally C. Roberts, The Growth of Responsible Government in Stuart England (Cambridge 1968).
poses. Chief among them was Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. The House of Commons impeached him in 1640. As with earlier impeachments, the thrust of the charge was damage to the state. The first article of impeachment alleged
That he . . . hath traiterously endeavored to subvert the
ernment against Law.... The other articles against Strafford included charges ranging from the allegation that he had assumed regal power and exercised it tyrannically to the charge that he had subverted the rights of Parliament."
Characteristically, impeachment was used in individual cases to reach offenses, as perceived by Parliament, against the system of government. The charges, variously denominated “treason," "high treason,” “misdemeanors," "malversations,” and “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” thus included allegations of misconduct as various as the kings (or their ministers) were ingenious in devising means of expanding royal power.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention the phrase "high Crimes and Misdemeanors” had been in use for over 400 years in impeachment proceedings in Parliament. It first appears in 1386 in the impeachment of the King's Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. Some of the charges may have involved common law offenses. Others plainly did not : de la Pole was charged with breaking a promise he made to the full Parliament to execute in connection with a parliamentary ordinance the advice of a committee of nine lords regarding the improvement of the estate of the King and the realm; "this was not done, and it was the fault of himself as he was then chief officer.” He was also charged with failing to expend a sum that Parliament had directed be used to ransom the town of Ghenty because of which “the said town was lost." 9
* Strafford was charged with treason, a term defined in 1352 by the Statute of Treasons, 25 Edw. 3, stat. 5, c. 2 (1352). The particular charges against him presumably would have been within the compass of the general, or "salvo," clause of that statute, but did not fall within any of the enumerated acts of treason. Strafford rested his defense in part on that fallure ; his eloquence on the question of retrospective treasons (“'Beware you do not awake these sleeping lions, by the searching out some neglected moth-eaten records, they may one day tear you and your posterity in pieces : It was your ancestors' care to chain them up within the barricadoes of statutes ; be not you ambitious to be more skilful and curious than your forefathers in the art of killing." Celebrated Trials
518 (Phila. 1837) may have dissuaded the Commons from bringing the trial to a vote in the House of Lords ; instead they caused his execution by bill of attainder.
*J. Rushworth, The Tryal of Thomas Earl of Strafford, in 8 Historical Collections 8 (1886).
Rushworth, supra D. 4, at 8–9. R. Berger, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems 30_(1973), states that the impeachment of strafford “. constitutes a great watershed in English constitutional history of which the Founders were aware.”
See generally A. Simpson, Å Treatise on Federal Impeachments 81-190 (Philadelphia, 1016), (Appendix of English Impeachment Trials); M. v. Clarke, "The Origin of Impeachmnent" in Oxford Essay8 in Medieval History 164 (Oxford, 1934). Reading and analyzing the early history of English Impeachments is complicated by the paucity and ambiguity of the records. The analysis that follows in this section has been drawn largely from the scholarship of others, checked against the original records where possible.
The basis for what became the impeachment procedure apparently originated in 1341, when the King and Parliament allke accepted the principle that the King's ministers were to answer in Parliament for their misdeeds. C. Roberts, supra n. 2, at 7. Offenses against Magna Carta, for example, were falling for technicalities in the ordinary courts, and therefore Parliament provided that offenders against Magna Carta be declared in Parllament and judged by their peers. Clarke, supra, at 173.
Simpson, supra n. 6, at 86; Berger, supra n. 5, at 61; Adams and Stevens, Select Documents of English Constitutional History 148 (London 1927).
For example, de la Pole was charged with purchasing property of great value from the King while using his position as Chancellor to have the lands appraised at less than they were worth, all in violation of his oath, in decelt of the King and in neglect of the need of the realm. Adams and Stevens, supra n. 7. at 148.
• Adams and Stevens, supra n. 7, at 148-150.