1902 Encyclopedia > Impeachment


IMPEACHMENT, an exceptional, and now rare, form of procedure against criminals in England, in which the House of Commons are the prosecutors and the House of Lords the judges. It differs from procedure by bill of attainder, which follows the ordinary forms of legislation in both Houses, and takes effect in an Act of Parliament.

In impeachment the form of procedure is strictly judicial. When the House of Commons has accepted a motion for impeachment, the mover is ordered to proceed to the bar of the House of Lords, and there impeach the accused " in the name of the House of Commons, and of all the Com-mons of the United Kingdom." The charges are formu-lated in articles, to each of which the accused may deliver a written answer. The prosecution must confine itself to the charges contained in the articles, though further articles may be adhibited from time to time. The Commons ap-point managers to conduct the prosecution, but the whole House in committee attends the trial. The defen-dant may appear by counsel. The president of the House of Lords is the lord high steward, in the case of peers im-peached for high treason; in other cases the lord chan-cellor. The hearing takes place as in an ordinary trial, the defence being allowed to call witnesses if necessary, and the prosecution having a right of reply. At the end of the case the president " puts to each peer, beginning with the junior baron, the questions upon the first article, whether the accused be guilty of the crimes charged therein. Each peer in succession rises in his place when the question is put, and standing uncovered, and laying his right hand upon his breast, answers, ' Guilty' or ' Not guilty,' as the case may be,' upon my honour.' Each article is proceeded with separately in the same manner, the lord high steward giving his own opinion the last " (May's Parliamentary Practice, c. xxiii.). Should the accused be found guilty, judgment follows if the Commons move for it, but not otherwise. The Commons thus retain the power of pardon in their own hands, and this right they have in several cases expressly claimed by resolution, declaring that it is not par-liamentary for their lordships to give judgment "until the same be first demanded by this House." An impeachment, unlike other parliamentary proceedings, is not interrupted by prorogation, nor even by dissolution. Proceedings in the House of Commons preliminary to an impeachment are subject to the ordinary rules, and in the Warren Hastings case an Act was passed to prevent the preliminary proceed-ings from discontinuance by prorogation and dissolution. A royal pardon cannot be pleaded in bar of an impeach-ment. The point was raised in the case of the earl of Danby in 1679, and the rule was finally settled by the Act of Settlement. Persons found guilty on impeachment may be reprieved or pardoned like other convicts. Impeachment will lie against all kinds of crimes and misdemeanours, and against offenders of all ranks. In the case of Simon de Beresford, tried before the House of Lords 4 Edward III., the House declared "that the judgment be not drawn into example or consequence in time to come, whereby the said peers may be charged hereafter to judge others than their peers," from which Blackstone and others have inferred that "a commoner cannot be impeached before the Lords for any capital offence, but only for high mis-demeanours." In the case of Fitzharris in 1681, the House of Commons in answer to a resolution of the Lords suspend-| ing the impeachment, declared it to be their undoubted right "to impeach any peer or commoner for treason or any other crime or misdemeanour." And the House of Lords has in practice recognized the right of the Commons to im-peach whomsoever they will. The procedure has, however, been reserved for great political offenders whom the ordinary powers of the law might fail to reach. It has now fallen into desuetude. The last impeachments were those of Warren Hastings (1788-95) and Lord Melville (1805), but an unsuccessful attempt was made by Mr Anstey to im-peach Lord Palmerston in 1848. The earliest recorded in-stances of impeachment are those of Lord Latimer in 1376, and of Pole, earl of Suffolk, in 1386. From the time of Edward IV. to Elizabeth it fell into disuse, "partly," says Hallam, " from the loss of that control which the Commons had obtained under Eichard II. and the Lan-castrian kings, and partly from the preference the Tudor princes had given to bills of attainder or pains and penalties when they wished to turn the arm of parliament against an obnoxious subject." Revived in the reign of James I., it became an instrument of parliamentary resist-ance to the crown, and it was not unfrequently resorted to in the first three reigns after the Revolution.

In the constitution of the United States the procedure of impeachment is an almost exact copy of that described above. The House of Representatives are the accusers, and appoint managers to conduct the prosecution at the bar of the senate. The vote of the senate is taken by putting the question separately to each member, and a majority of two-thirds is required for a conviction. In the separate States it partakes of the same quasi-political character — neither the prosecutors nor the judges being the same as in ordinary criminal offences. The most noted instances of impeachment in the United States are those of Associate Justice Chase in 1804, of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and of Judge Barnard, New York, in 1872. The object of impeachment is the removal of public officers for malversation in office, which is followed sometimes by disqualification for any future appointment.

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