A formal accusation of wrongdoing. To impeach a public official is to accuse him of crimes or misdemeanours in the execution of his duties. Impeachment proceedings normally occur in the lower house of a legislature, with any subsequent trial taking place in the upper house. In England, prior to the development of ministerial responsibility to Parliament, impeachment was used as a means whereby the legislature sought to call to account ministers who saw themselves as answerable primarily, if not exclusively, to the Crown. For example, in 1677 the House of Commons impeached the King's chief minister, the Earl of Danby, for negotiating a treaty with the King of France. The House of Lords declined to convict Danby although he was dismissed and committed to the Tower for five years. There have been only two cases of impeachment in Britain in the last two hundred years—Warren Hastings was impeached in 1786 arising from alleged misgovernment in India, and Lord Melville was impeached in 1806 for corruption in the use of public funds.
In the United States the Constitution provides for the impeachment of federal officials charged with ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanours’. The House of Representatives has ‘the sole Power of Impeachment’ and all impeachments are tried in the Senate with the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court presiding. Conviction requires the agreement of two‐thirds of the members present. Since 1787 seven federal judges have been removed following impeachment proceedings.
President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, but survived in the Senate by one vote. In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee agreed three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Nixon was charged with the abuse of his power as President, obstruction of justice, and contempt of Congress. Before these articles could be voted on by the full House the President resigned, after being informed that his impeachment and conviction were otherwise inevitable. In 1998 the House agreed articles of impeachment against President Clinton on charges of lying about an extramarital relationship. The Senate failed to summon the necessary two‐thirds to eject Clinton. The impeachment distracted all branches of the Federal government for more than a year.