The Law of Impeachment

Impeachment, as a legal process for alleging and adjudicating crimes against high-ranking public officials, appears in the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of every state, except Oregon. Explore this digital exhibit to learn more about the history and legal documents associated with impeachment in the United States and the Lone Star State.


History of Impeachment

The concept of impeachment can trace its roots to the Ancient Greek practice of eisangelia, in which public officials were accused of misconduct and tried before a political assembly. Its current form, which is carried into the U.S. and most state constitutions, originated in England. After separation of parliament, the House of Commons had the power to accuse a public official of misconduct and the House of Lords judged impeachment cases.
See, Tex. Const. art. 15, § 1 interp. commentary (West 2018).


Impeachment and the U.S. Constitution

Six provisions in the U.S. Constitution relate to the impeachment of federal officeholders:

  • Art. I, § 2, cl. 5: The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and officers; and shall have the sole power of impeachment.

  • Art. I, § 2, cl. 6 & 7: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

  • Art. II, § 2, cl. 1: The President . . . shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

  • Art. II, § 4: 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.

  • Art. III, § 2, cl. 3: The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; . . .

Read the full text of the U.S. Constitution on the National Archive’s America’s Founding Document’s website.


Presidential Impeachment

The U.S. House of Representatives has begun impeachment proceedings more than 60 times, but has only passed articles of impeachment 19 times, including those against two sitting presidents. Only eight of those impeached—all federal judges—have been found guilty in the Senate and removed from office. Learn more at USA.gov.

The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson

On February 24, 1868, the U.S. House of Representatives exercised its power of impeachment for the first time against a sitting president by adopting 11 articles of impeachment. After an 11-week trial in the Senate, Johnson avoided removal from office by just one vote. Learn more with an in-depth article published by the U.S. Senate on Senate.gov.

 

Impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton

On December 16, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution containing two articles of impeachment. The Senate issued an acquittal on both counts following a trial that concluded February 16, 1999. Learn more on Senate.gov. You can find even more information with reports produced by the U.S. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee (H. Rept. 105-830) and Miscellaneous Senate Publications Related to Impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.


Impeachment in the Lone Star State

Like the federal constitution, the Constitution of the State of Texas provides procedures for impeaching public officials that rely on the same bifurcated process in which the House of Representatives impeaches the official and the Senate sits as the court. Learn more about the Texas impeachment process by reading Article 15 of the Texas Constitution from the Texas Legislature.

Impeachment of Governor James Ferguson

The first and only Texas governor to be impeached is Governor James “Pa” Ferguson. Elected in 1914 and re-elected in 1916, he faced 21 articles of impeachment and resigned during the trial in the Senate on September 24, 1917, one day before the Senate voted to remove him from office and disqualify him from holding office again.

Record of Proceedings of the High Court of Impeachment on the Trial of Hon. James Ferguson, Governor.

Following the impeachment hearings, the Texas Senate published a record of the proceedings involving Governor Ferguson. The volume pictured here was donated to the Law Library and has remained a part of the collection for more than 100 years. The title remains one of the most important works on Texas impeachment law given that it records the only impeachment proceedings involving a sitting governor of Texas.

Not One to Give Up

Following his resignation and impeachment, Ferguson announced his candidacy for governor in 1918, but he was defeated in the primary by Houstonian William H. Hobby. After unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Presidency and Senate, he once again announced a run for governor in 1924. A concerned Harris County resident named John Maddox filed suit. Ferguson argued that because he resigned, the Texas Senate had no power to bar him from holding office. The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed. Undeterred, Pa ran a successful campaign for his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, in 1924 to defeat a Klan-backed candidate and returned to the Governor’s mansion as First Gentleman. Ma Ferguson was the first women to serve as governor of Texas.
See, Ralph W. Steen, “Ferguson, James Edward,” The Handbook of Texas (2016).


Further Reading

Find more resources on the law of impeachment in the U.S. and the state of Texas at the Harris County Law Library.