How Does the Impeachment Process Work?

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is being impeached. How does the impeachment process work?On January 9, 2009, the Illinois House of Representatives impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich in a 114-1 vote. The decision was reaffirmed by the incoming legislature on January 14 in a 117-1 vote for impeachment.

Impeachment is uncommon in the US and the process can be confusing. Does Governor Blagojevich's impeachment have you wondering exactly how the impeachment process works and what happens next?

The Impeachment Process

A common misconception is that impeachment of an official means his or her removal from office. In fact, impeachment functions as an indictment of a public official; it allows the legislature to bring formal charges against a civil officer of government. After an official has been impeached, or formally charged, a trial is held to determine whether or not the official will be removed from office.

In the US Federal Government, the House of Representatives impeaches government officials and the trial takes place before the Senate. The House votes on the articles of impeachment, requiring a simple majority to pass them. Upon passage of the articles, an individual has been impeached.

Blagojevich is a state official and must be impeached by the Illinois State Legislature. The Illinois impeachment process is similar to the federal impeachment process, but not all states follow the same model. State impeachment proceedings take place according to each state's constitution and can vary widely.

Impeachable Offenses

According to the US Constitution, "Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors" justify impeachment, although the exact definition of "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is often the subject of debate. Usually, impeachment is reserved for serious offenses and abuses of power, and it is up to the impeaching body to determine whether or not an offense is impeachable. Offenses do not have to violate criminal law in order to be impeachable.

Blagojevich is the sixteenth governor to be impeached in the US; most, like Blagojevich, under charges of corruption. The most famous accusation against Governor Blagojevich is that he attempted to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant US Senate seat to the highest bidder, but other charges against him include conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, solicitation of bribery, and trading official acts for campaign contributions. These accusations also led to Blagojevich's arrest on federal corruption charges in December 2008.

The Trial

After the House of Representatives impeaches, the Senate tries the accused. Senators are sworn in as jurors and rules for the proceedings are established. When a US President is impeached, the Chief Justice of the United States presides; in Blagojevich's case, the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court will preside over the hearing. A two-thirds majority is required to convict; otherwise, the accused is acquitted. Blagojevich's trial before the Illinois State Senate is scheduled to begin January 26, 2009; 40 of the 59 member votes are needed to convict him.

The Consequences

A conviction by the Senate brings immediate removal from office. If an official is convicted, the Senate may take a second vote to determine whether or not to bar the official from holding any public office in the future. The Senate trial does not constitute a criminal trial and the Senate decision does not have power beyond removal from office and barring of future public office. The impeached official is still subject to criminal prosecution for any criminal offenses that were included in the articles of impeachment.

Whether Blagojevich is convicted in his impeachment trial will have no bearing on the criminal charges levied against him by the US Department of Justice. Even though many of the same accusations were levied against him in both the impeachment and the federal corruption charges, Blagojevich will have to stand trial separately on the criminal charges.

In Blagojevich's case, the impending criminal trial is actually complicating the Senate impeachment trial. To avoid affecting the criminal investigation, the US Attorney's Office has asked that witnesses and evidence involved in the criminal investigation not be used in the Senate trial. Because many of the charges are the same for both trials, much of the evidence is applicable to both.

For more information:

Illinois State Senate Impeachment Documents

Constitution of the United States