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How Impeachment Works: What Does 'High Crimes and Misdemeanors' Even Mean?


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Now that Democrat leaders in the House of Representatives have begun an impeachment inquiry, it's important to consider the basics of the process.

The US Constitution empowers the House – and the House alone – to impeach high-ranking government officials, while the Senate would convene an impeachment trial. A supermajority of two-thirds of the Senate would be needed to remove any president from office.

The Constitution lays out the reasons for impeachment: 

"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."

While treason and bribery seem relatively clear cut, the phrase "other high crimes and misdemeanors" is not.

That leads to serious questions about what constitutes an impeachable offense. 

Thomas Jipping, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation explained it for CBN News. "It is a little bit of an odd phrase, and those words might mean something to people today - they might hear the word misdemeanor and think that it's a minor, little offense. But it's a phrase that's been around in the law both here and in England for a few hundred years actually."

"It identifies a category, a very narrow category of serious misconduct by a public official. Not necessarily criminal, but in a sense it's an offense against the public trust, it's an offense against the political system, it's kind of a betrayal of the people in such a way that that official ought to be removed now." 

"In the case of the president, it'd be like saying he's gotta go now instead of waiting for next year's election. So it's a narrow category of very serious offenses," Jipping explained.

Impeachment Is a Political Process

The US Supreme Court has declared that impeachment is a political process, not a legal process. Heritage explains it this way:

"The most important point to understand about impeachment is that it is not a legal proceeding like a federal criminal prosecution. And none of the formal procedural or evidentiary rules that apply to both criminal and civil trials in the federal courts are applicable in an impeachment trial."

In other words, the political party that's in control of the House can determine how it wants to proceed and what it considers to be treason-worthy.

Before receiving the record of the White House phone call, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated she's already made up her mind, saying the president's actions have seriously violated the Constitution. Jipping says that's a surprising conclusion at this stage in the process.

"I was a little bit confused by her press conference because, on the one hand, she's trying to explain why now she supports an impeachment inquiry when before she didn't. And so she's saying we need to investigate, we need to get the facts. And on the other hand she (reaches) an explicit conclusion about the entire matter. She can't have it both ways."

Watch the full interview with Thomas Jipping on Faith Nation at the top of this story for even more analysis.


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Benjamin Gill oversees all web content as the Multimedia Manager for He has been on staff with CBN News as an internet and broadcast producer since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter @BenGillCBN. Here are some of his commentaries and articles: Pursuing Truth in a World of Fake News: Reflections of a Christian Journalist After 20 Years with CBN News The Breaking Point: Pandemic Pain, Persistent Prayer, and God's Bigger Picture Plagues, the End Times, and Trusting in God's Protection: 'You Will Hear Us and Rescue Us' 12 Powerful Bible Verses to Build Your Faith and Fight Fear