Explainer: Words Used in Impeachment Process
The U.S. House of Representatives has begun an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump over his efforts to push Ukraine to investigate a political rival. Many of the words and phrases used in the impeachment process are particular to U.S. law and clauses in the U.S. Constitution that govern the impeachment process.
Here are some of the common terms used in an impeachment inquiry and what they mean:
Articles of impeachment: A formal document listing the charges against an official and the reasons why that person should be removed from office. In the United States, the House of Representatives drafts the articles of impeachment, which are then voted on by all members of the House. If a majority of House members vote in favor, the official is impeached — essentially, the equivalent of an indictment — and the articles of impeachment move to the Senate, which then holds a trial.
Bribery: The second offense listed in the Constitution as worthy of impeachment, following treason. Bribery takes place when one person gives something of value to someone in a position of authority in order to influence his or her actions. It often involves cash gifts, although the inducements need not be money and could include, gifts, services or favors.
Censure: A formal statement of condemnation of a president, Cabinet member, judge or lawmaker passed by a chamber of Congress. Unlike impeachment, censure is not mentioned in the Constitution and would not trigger a trial and possible expulsion. Only one president has ever been censured: Andrew Jackson, by the Senate in 1834.
Civil officers of the United States: The Constitution says that any civil officer of the United States is eligible for impeachment. Civil officers are officials in the U.S. government who are appointed to their positions and serve in any of the branches of government — executive, legislative or judicial.
High crimes and misdemeanors: One of the categories of offenses listed in the Constitution worthy of impeachment. The framers of the Constitution did not define high crimes and misdemeanors, but the phrase has been interpreted to include both violations of criminal statues as well as noncriminal actions that are deemed an abuse of power.
Impeachment: This refers to the U.S. House bringing charges against a government official for alleged wrongdoing. A common misconception is that impeachment means removal from office, but it is more akin to an indictment. If a majority of lawmakers in the House vote in favor of impeachment, the process then moves to the Senate, which holds a trial to determine whether to remove the official from office.
Pardon: Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution grants the president the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” The question of whether a president can pardon himself was raised during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. At the time, a Justice Department memo sent to President Richard Nixon said: “Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case,” the president cannot pardon himself. However, the Constitution does not expressly prevent a president from pardoning himself.
Quid pro quo: The most literal translation of the Latin phrase is “something for something,” and in everyday terms it refers to an exchange of services or things of value. It has meaning in the legal system, finance and politics. It can describe perfectly legal transactions, but it can also apply to shady deals, where something improper or illegal is exchanged for something of value.
Removal vs. disqualification: Once the impeachment proceedings move from the House to the Senate, a trial is held to determine whether to convict the defendant. If the Senate votes to convict, the defendant is removed from office. The Senate may then choose to vote to further punish the defendant by barring him or her from holding future federal office, known as disqualification. The Constitution states that removal and disqualification are the only punishments the Senate can issue. However, a defendant may also be subjected to punishment in regular state or federal courts.
Standard vs. burden of proof: The Constitution says any officer of the executive or judicial branch can be removed from office for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” However, it does not define “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The determination is left to the members of the House and Senate. The Constitution also leaves it to lawmakers to determine whether there is enough evidence for impeachment. Unlike in criminal cases, there is no need for proof of misconduct “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Supermajority: The Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to vote to convict an official facing impeachment and removal from office.
Treason: The first offense listed in the Constitution as worthy of impeachment. It is also the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution, which states a person is guilty of treason if he or she goes to war against the United States or gives “aid or comfort” to an enemy. The Constitution says that no one can be convicted of treason “unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or on confession in open court.”
U.S. Constitution: The document that defines the fundamentals of the government, laws and basic rights granted Americans. It was written in 1787 and ratified the next year by the 13 original states.