Background and History of Impeachment
Testimony of Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J.
Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution
Hearing on the Background and History of Impeachment
November 9, 1998
The framers of the United States Constitution knew that every president would have many political enemies. The authors of the Constitution consequently made the president virtually immune from legal action. They knew furthermore that America was inventing not a system of parliamentary democracy but a system in which the majority of the members of the Congress could not call or win a vote of no confidence.
But the founding fathers knew that in an extreme case there would be a need to remove a president before the time of his re-election. This was especially true since the writers of the Constitution feared (long before the time when a president was limited to eight years in office) that a president could aggregate power to himself and stay in office as if he were a member of a royal family.
The history and definition of impeachment do not yield all of the clarity which everyone might wish. But the intention of the founding fathers as found in the ways in which Congress for over 200 years has reacted to the impeachment process demonstrates a consensus that is clear and remarkably consistent. Impeachment is a unique and extraordinary weapon which should be considered only in extreme cases when impeachment is the only remedy available to oust a president even though the majority of the nation's voters elected him.
On the contrary the idea of a Congressional "censure" for the President has no legal or Constitutional history. It needs to be considered only because the majority of citizens in this country state in polls at this time that they oppose impeachment but desire some form of Congressional "sanction" as a way of expressing their disapproval of the President's conduct. They propose a "censure" as a compromise or a plea bargain. But there has never been a definition of "censure." Is it an admonition, a rebuke or a reprimand? Presumably it has no legal consequences.
The only occasion when a Congressional censure was enacted was in the 1830's when President Andrew Jackson received a censure from the Senate. Not surprisingly it was initiated by Senator Henry Clay whom Jackson had defeated in the presidential race. The censure was subsequently expunged.
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