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By Bob Hegamin
AN OPINION December 10, 1998

From the U.S. Constitution:

ARTICLE II Section 4. 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.

ARTICLE I Section 2. House of Representatives, how constituted, power of impeachment.

5. The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other officers; and shall have the sole power of impeachment.

Impeachment---n 1. The act of impeaching: the condition of being impeached. 2. (in the U.S. Congress or state legislature) the presentation of formal charges against a public official by the lower house, with trial to be before the upper house. (Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House –1991)

Article II, Section 4 is the most contentious article in the U.S. Constitution simply because it has rarely been used, is untested, and has developed few precedents for its future use.

It may appear strange today but, of the countless number of high profile charges that could have been explicitly included in this article, the framers of the Constitution elected to use only “treason” and “bribery.” All other unspecified violations of the Constitution would be relegated to either “high crimes” or “misdemeanors.”


Obviously, the first order of business for the leaders of the emerging nation was to guarantee its survival. The framers had committed themselves to one reality. They were not going to live under another monarchy but, since it was the only type of government they had known, they knew what it was they didn’t want. Their chief concern, however, was that their new, untried government would still have opponents who wanted to establish a monarchy. The framers of the Constitution were not going to give any opposition member, in the role of “President, Vice President” or any member of the select group of “civil officers of the United States”, an opportunity to use treachery or bribery to take the new nation apart.

The framers had also reasoned that after fourteen years, the articles of impeachment based on treachery or bribery would no longer be needed. In that time, they must have surmised, the threat of establishing a monarchy by the opposition would have faded. Acting on that reasoning, they placed a fourteen-year residency requirement (Article II, Section 1. [4]) for the first president and incidentally for future presidents. The framers had put their integrity and morality into the development of the Constitution and, with an impeachment process in place, they must have known their legacy would endure.


It was left to “high crimes” and “misdemeanors”, however, to address other violations of the Constitution. They would deal with improper acts committed by the officeholder -- while in office. Treason and bribery could continue to be doubly covered under “High Crimes”.

But, the nation did not yet exist. The framers of the Constitution, however, knew they wanted the new leadership to guarantee accountability to the people for their performance under the Constitution. The people had to be assured that impeachment and conviction of an officeholder, for any violation of the Constitution, would result in one easily understood penalty -- removal from office.

Under those circumstances, activities of autocratic monarchs and their administrations had to be analyzed. Solutions, based on the research, would be used as the criteria for an impeachment procedure.

We can only assume the framers of the Constitution ultimately compiled a list of criminal behavior and personal abuses committed by autocrats under the “Divine Right of Kings” syndrome. They wanted to make it clear that the inherent incompetence, abuse of power, decadence, arrogance, and corruption – among other abuses - which characterized European royalty, could never become a part of the nation under the new Constitution. Charges under “Impeachment” would have to be all-inclusive.

The founders lumped all of those violations against the state into “High Crimes” and “Misdemeanors”, with what we can only assume to be the following definitions:

High Crimes: -- formal criminal behavior related to activities of state, and

Misdemeanors: -- personal misbehavior and misdeeds, which demean or reflect negatively on the state.

Unfortunately, the word “misdemeanor” is generally used today in the legal sense connoting “a criminal offense less serious than a felony.” If applied to the Constitution only in light of a criminal act, the distinction between a “High Crime”, or felony, and a “Misdemeanor” would simply be a matter of degree, just as it is in the present U.S. legal system. Would a simple misdemeanor warrant the “Impeachment” of the President?

Consequently, there is an unmistakable difference between the two terms in the Constitution. The framers would have undermined the purpose of their own impeachment process if it contained two sets of unique violations, only to simply have them differentiate among criminal activities. It would suggest an impeachment is nothing more than a criminal court proceeding.

Any officeholder can consciously refrain from offensive behavior, while in office. It is not an impossible effort. The framers concluded wisely that impeachment, with its attendant removal from office, would be a reasonable penalty – for the sake of the nation.

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