impeachment | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Courts

Impeachment refers to either the legal process of discrediting a witness’s testimony or the political procedure to charge a government official with misconduct.

In evidence law, impeachment is the process of calling a witness’s testimony into doubt. For example, if the attorney can show that the witness may have fabricated portions of his testimony, the witness is said to be “impeached.”

In government, impeachment is the constitutional process whereby the House of Representatives may “impeach” (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government, who are then tried by the Senate.

Impeachment is a term used in both the legal and political arenas, but it carries different meanings in each. In the world of evidence law, it’s about challenging the credibility of a witness. In government, impeachment means bringing charges against a high-ranking government official.

Impeachment in Evidence Law

Let’s dive deeper into impeachment in the context of evidence law. When a witness testifies in a court case, their credibility is crucial. But what if there’s reason to doubt the witness’s testimony?

Why Impeach a Witness?

There could be a few reasons. Maybe there’s evidence that the witness has a history of dishonesty, or perhaps they’ve made inconsistent statements about the case. Maybe the witness has a bias that could slant their testimony, or perhaps there’s evidence that the witness has a reason to lie.

The Process of Impeaching a Witness

If any of these situations arise, an attorney might choose to impeach the witness. This process involves presenting evidence or questioning the witness in a way that casts doubt on their reliability. The goal is to convince the judge or jury that the witness’s testimony should not be trusted. Impeaching a witness can significantly influence the outcome of a case.

Impeachment in Government

Now let’s turn to impeachment in the realm of government. This process is quite different from impeachment in a court trial. It’s a formal procedure outlined in the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress to accuse and try high-ranking government officials for misconduct.

How Does Governmental Impeachment Work?

Here’s how it works. The U.S. House of Representatives can vote to impeach an official, like the President, if they believe the official has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Impeachment doesn’t mean the official is automatically removed from office. Rather, it’s similar to an indictment in criminal law, where charges are formally made.

If the House votes to impeach, the case moves to the U.S. Senate. The Senate conducts a trial. If two-thirds of Senators find the official guilty, the official is removed from office.

Notable Instances of Governmental Impeachment

In U.S. history, the House of Representatives has impeached a few officials, including three presidents: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. But none of these presidents were removed from office. In Johnson’s and Clinton’s cases, the Senate didn’t find them guilty. In Trump’s first impeachment, the Senate acquitted him. His second impeachment trial occurred after he left office.

Why Is Impeachment Important?

In both legal and governmental contexts, impeachment is an essential check and balance. In court, it keeps the process fair by allowing attorneys to question the credibility of witnesses. In government, it allows Congress to hold high-ranking officials accountable for their actions.

In essence, impeachment is all about challenging authority, whether that’s the authority of a witness in a courtroom or a powerful government official. It’s a tool that, when used responsibly, helps maintain the integrity of our judicial and political systems.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/22/2023

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