Separation of Powers: Impeachment

US Constitution - with the word Impeachment resting on top

Separation of powers is not absolute, and its system of checks and balances is designed to allow each branch to restrain abuse by another branch. As a result, legislatures often are granted the ability to oversee official government conduct and to remove executive or judicial public officers from their positions, called “impeachment.”   The word “impeachment” originates from Latin roots expressing the idea of being caught or entrapped, and it is the act of challenging the honesty or credibility of a person. Impeachment does not necessarily result in removal from office.     
The impeachment process was first used by the English Parliament in the 14th century. Following the British example, the U.S. Constitution and all state constitutions except Oregon’s include an impeachment doctrine.   

The impeachment process actually has two stages, and the responsibility for each stage usually is separated.  

  • The first stage is the impeachment—that is, the development of a formal accusation or statement of charges. Most often, the responsibility for this stage is given to the “lower” legislative chamber, i.e., the house or assembly. During this stage, accusations are heard and investigated. If the body believes that misconduct occurred, the charges—articles of impeachment—are developed and voted upon. If the requisite affirmative vote is reached, the articles of impeachment are forwarded to the body responsible for the second stage of the process. 
  • The second stage is the formal consideration of the charges laid out in the articles of impeachment, and the responsibility usually is assigned to the “upper” legislative body, i.e., the senate. This stage resembles a trial; both sides may call witnesses and present evidence. When the presentation of arguments is completed, the body must vote whether to find the person guilty of the charges, and a supermajority vote typically is required to convict the accused.    

Impeachment is relatively rare. For example, for more than 200 years, the U.S. House has impeached only 18 federal officials. In 1994, a state Supreme Court justice became the first Pennsylvania judge to be impeached in 183 years. In 2000, the New Hampshire House held an impeachment proceeding—something that the House had not done in 210 years. The 2004 impeachment of the state controller was the first impeachment in Nevada’s 140-year history. The Illinois House has impeached only two people in the state’s history—a judge in 1832-33 and a governor in 2008-09.   
Why do impeachments occur so infrequently? The reasons include: 

  • Impeachment is regarded as a power to be used only in extreme cases.

Individuals frequently resign before the impeachment proceedings begin or are completed.

Resources

Case Law

  • Federal: Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993)
  • Nebraska: State v. Hastings, 37 Neb. 96, 55 N.W. 774 (1893)
  • Nebraska: State v. Hill, 37 Neb. 80, 55 N.W. 794 (1893)
  • Nebraska: State v. Leese, 37 Neb. 92, 55 N.W. 798 (1893)
  • Nebraska: Conroy v. Hallowell, 94 Neb. 794, 144 N.W. 895 (1913)
  • Nebraska: Laverty v. Cochran, 132 Neb. 118, 271 N.W. 354 (1936)
  • Nebraska: State v. Douglas, 217 Neb. 199, 349 N.W.2d 870 (1984)
  • For brief descriptions of these cases, go to the following link for Annotated Constitution III-17

Receiving Information or Recommending Additions

If you have any questions, please contact Brenda Erickson.  Also, please contact Brenda if you would like to recommend legislative resources or case law that may enhance the Separation of Powers website.