In this Academic blog, Law lecturer Chris Monaghan gives his views on impeachment. Chris is a Principal Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and is currently studying for a PhD in Law at King’s College London. His PhD thesis explores impeachment from a historical, contemporary and comparative perspective and he is looking at whether impeachment could ever be used again in the United Kingdom.
Late last year, Donald J Trump, the President of the United States of America, made headlines when he became the third person holding that office to be impeached. Although he was impeached (that is accused) by the House of Representatives on two counts, which related to alleged abuse of power and the obstruction of Congress, he went on to be acquitted by the US Senate. Almost 20 years earlier, another American President, Bill Clinton, was impeached by the House of Representatives and likewise acquitted by the Senate. Yet, despite its popular association with the United States, impeachment has a British or, to be more precise, an English origin.
What is impeachment?
Put literally, impeachment is the formal accusing of a public official of a serious offence in connection with their job, but it is an American phenomenon. Within the past decade there have been presidential impeachments in countries such as Brazil and South Korea, however, it is the United States, with its legacy of the Clinton impeachment, and now Trump impeachment, that is arguably most associated with the term. This is despite there having been just three presidential impeachments since the introduction of impeachment in the federal constitution of 1787.
How does impeachment work in America?
According to the US Constitution, a President can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanours”. However, whilst the House of Representatives only needs a bare majority of votes to impeach a President in the first stage of the process (50 per cent plus one), two-thirds of the Senate need to support the impeachment in the second stage in order to remove the President.
Origins of impeachment in Parliament
To examine the origins of impeachment we must go back to 1376 when, at a meeting of the English Parliament, the Commons (the lower house of the English Parliament) accused a royal official, Lord William Latimer, of having abused his position and of co-operating with the enemy.
Latimer was accused of surrendering key military defenses to the French. At the time England was fighting the Hundred Years War, and currently losing. The reigning king, Edward III, was very old and there were popular concerns that Latimer and other officials were abusing their position and profiting from the situation.
The Commons’ accusations against Latimer were made on behalf of the entire body. It was not just one Member of Parliament that was bringing a complaint against Latimer. The procedure that developed in 1376 is known as impeachment and it’s a word that has its origins in the English, French and Latin languages.
The Commons impeached Latimer and demanded that he was tried before the Lords (the upper house of the English Parliament), who agreed. A trial took place and Latimer was found guilty and, as a consequence, lost his position at court.
What makes impeachment so remarkable?
Scholars have sought to understand why impeachment originated in 1376. It was a truly remarkable procedure, as it allowed the Commons to proceed against those individuals who were the subject of popular grievances. What is important to understand is that the procedure quickly became an established part of the Commons’ parliamentary armoury over the next two decades.
For a number of reasons impeachment fell into disuse after the 1450s and was not rediscovered by parliamentarians until 1621. It was used by the House of Commons in its conflict with the monarch Charles I and could serve as a way to proceed against the king’s most trusted advisers, without the need to proceed directly against the king. Consequently, the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud were impeached, although this was later abandoned in favour of a Bill of Attainder (a legislature declaring a person, or a group of persons, guilty of a crime). An impeachment required a trial before the Lords, whereas a Bill of Attainder – like any other piece of legislation – just required a simple vote to be approved by the Lords. The Act of Attainder was passed and both Strafford and Laud were executed. Impeachment continued to be used during the eighteenth century.
Impeachment – possible renewal in the UK?
The last impeachment took place in 1805 when Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, was impeached by the House of Commons on allegations of misappropriating public funds (Illegal use of public funds). Melville was acquitted by the House of Lords in 1806. While there have been no further impeachments, more recently there have been instances when the process has been mooted as a possible way to proceed against those accused of misconduct. Examples of this include Viscount Palmerstone in the 19th century and Tony Blair in the 21st century. In Blair’s case this related to his role in taking Britain to war in Iraq in 2003, when Coalition forces toppled the governing regime.
In conclusion, impeachment is arguably most associated with the United States of America, but its earliest uses are recorded in English history many centuries earlier. The idea of a two-stage process, with an accusation by the lower house and a trial to determine guilt before the upper house, as operated under the Trump administration. So, although it is an English invention, undoubtedly its most powerful legacy lies in its use across the Atlantic.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.
Chris Monaghan is a Principal Lecturer in Law at the School of Law, in the University of Worcester. We offer a variety of Single and Joint Honours Law degrees within the School of Law. You can follow Chris on Twitter on @Chris_JMonaghan