The 1974 Congressional report, Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment, discusses the meaning of the phrase "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" at length. This phrase does not cover common misdemeanors such as traffic violations, but rather those actions, injurious to the nation as a whole and to the Constitution, that nobody other than high government officials can commit.
British Parliamentary UsageEdit
This phrase was used for centuries in British Parliamentary impeachments of the King's ministers and other officials on charges such as
- Stealing public money and lands
- Authorizing piracy (Captain Kidd, in particular, who held a British Navy commission)
- Substitution of tyranny for the rule of law
- Gross neglect of duty
- Failing to spend money appropriated by Parliament, in breach of a promise to do so
- Procuring offices for persons who were unfit
- Cruelty to foreign subjects of the British Empire, provoking them to rebellion
Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England: The "first and principal" high misdemeanor, according to Blackstone, was "mal-administration of such high officers, as are in public trust and employment."
In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton described the subject of impeachment as
"...those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself."
In the debate over impeachment in the Constitutional Convention and in the ratification debates that followed, a number of other grounds for impeachment were proposed.
- The President should be impeached for actions of his administration for which he had responsibility, ignorance not being an excuse, but rather compounding the fault. (James Madison)
- When it cannot be determined who in the administration has committed some impeachable action, the President should be impeached [and the entire administration replaced.] (Alexander Hamilton)
- Malpractice or neglect of duty (unanimously adopted)
- Incapacity, negligence or perfidy (James Madison)
- Maladministration (in 6 of the 13 state constitutions at the time)
- Giving false information to the Senate (James Iredell)
- Attempting to subvert the Constitution (George Mason)
President George W. Bush has been accused of all of the above.
Benjamin Franklin argued that the remedy of impeachment was necessary to prevent recourse to assassination.
Edmund Randolph defended "the propriety of impeachments":
The Executive will have great opportunitys of abusing his power; particularly in time of war when the military force, and in some respects the public money will be in his hands.
In the US, impeachment charges brought or urged against Presidents, Senators, and judges have included
- Misprision of felony (the Nixon coverup)
- Inciting violence against another country
- Drunkenness on the bench
- Permitting partisan views to influence conduct on the bench
- Vindictive misuse of power
- Use of office for personal gain
- Violation of duties or oath
- Seriously undermining public confidence in his ability to perform his official functions.
- Bringing a court or the judicial system into disrepute
President Bush has been accused of several of these, and of other failures in duty and actions contrary to the Constitution and injurious to the nation.