“High crimes and misdemeanors” is a phrase from Section 4 of Article Two of the United States Constitution: “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.”
“High,” in the legal and common parlance of the 17th and 18th centuries of “high crimes,” is activity by or against those who have special duties acquired by taking an oath of office that are not shared with common persons. A high crime is one that can be done only by someone in a unique position of authority, which is political in character, who does things to circumvent justice. The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors,” used together, was a common phrase when the U.S. Constitution was written and did not require any stringent or difficult criteria for determining guilt but meant the opposite. The phrase was historically used to cover a very broad range of crimes.
The Judiciary Committee’s 1974 report “The Historical Origins of Impeachment” stated: “‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors’ has traditionally been considered a ‘term of art‘, like such other constitutional phrases as ‘levying war’ and ‘due process.’ The Supreme Court has held that such phrases must be construed, not according to modern usage, but according to what the framers meant when they adopted them. For example, Chief Justice John Marshall when writing about the phrase “levying war” said, “It is a technical term. It is used in a very old statute of that country whose language is our language, and whose laws form the substratum of our laws. It is scarcely conceivable that the term was not employed by the framers of our constitution in the sense which had been affixed to it by those from whom we borrowed it.”
Since 1386, the English parliament had used the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” to describe one of the grounds to impeach officials of the crown. Officials accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors” were accused of offenses as varied as misappropriating government funds, appointing unfit subordinates, not prosecuting cases, not spending money allocated by Parliament, promoting themselves ahead of more deserving candidates, threatening a grand jury, disobeying an order from Parliament, arresting a man to keep him from running for Parliament, losing a ship by neglecting to moor it, helping “suppress petitions to the King to call a Parliament,” granting warrants without cause, and bribery. Some of these charges were crimes. Others were not. They can be thought of as serious cases of power abuse or dereliction of duty, without a requirement for these cases to be explicitly against the law.
Benjamin Franklin asserted that the power of impeachment and removal was necessary for those times when the Executive “rendered himself obnoxious,” and the Constitution should provide for the “regular punishment of the Executive when his conduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.” James Madison said that “impeachment… was indispensable” to defend the community against “the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” With a single executive, Madison argued, unlike a legislature whose collective nature provided security, “loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic.”
The process of impeaching someone in the House of Representatives and the Senate is difficult, made so to be the balance against efforts to easily remove people from office for minor reasons that could easily be determined by the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. It was George Mason who offered up the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” as one of the criteria to remove public officials who abuse their office. Their original intentions can be gleaned by the phrases and words that were proposed before, such as “high misdemeanor,” “maladministration,” or “other crime.” Edmund Randolph said impeachment should be reserved for those who “misbehave.” Charles Cotesworth Pinckney said, It should be reserved “for those who behave amiss, or betray their public trust.” As can be seen from all these references to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the definition or its rationale does not relate to specific offences. This gives a lot of freedom of interpretation to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The constitutional law by nature is not concerned with being specific. The courts through precedence and the legislature through lawmaking make constitutional provisions specific. In this case the legislature (the House of Representatives and the Senate) acts as a court and can create a precedent.
In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton said, “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
The first impeachment conviction by the United States Senate was in 1804 of John Pickering, a judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire, for chronic intoxication. Federal judges have been impeached and removed from office for tax evasion, conspiracy to solicit a bribe, and making false statements to a grand jury.
Andrew Johnson was impeached on February 24, 1868, in the United U.S. House of Representatives on eleven articles of impeachment detailing his “high crimes and misdemeanors”, in accordance with Article Two of the United States Constitution. (The Senate fell one vote short of conviction.) The House’s primary charge against Johnson was with violation of the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress the previous year. Specifically, he had removed Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War from office and replaced him with John Schofield, but it was unclear if Johnson had violated the act as Stanton was nominated by President Abraham Lincoln and not by Johnson.
During the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1999, White House Counsel Charles Ruff described a “narrow” interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” as requiring “a standard that the framers intentionally set at this extraordinarily high level to ensure that only the most serious offenses and in particular those that subverted our system of government would justify overturning a popular election”. Writing in 1999, Mark R. Slusar commented that the narrow interpretation seemed to be most common among legal scholars and senators.
Americans of the founding generation were familiar with the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” not merely because they were close students of the parliamentary history of the mother country, but also because both the American colonies and the early state governments had conducted impeachments of their own. For example, in 1774, just before the American Revolution, the Massachusetts colonial assembly impeached Chief Justice Peter Oliver for “certain High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” His offense? The decidedly noncriminal act of agreeing to accept a royal salary rather than the stipend appropriated by the Massachusetts legislature. The Oliver impeachment was a cause célèbre in both England and the colonies. John Adams is often credited with the idea of impeaching the judge. Among those voting to impeach Oliver were Sam Adams and John Hancock, as well as Nathaniel Gorham, who in 1787 was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and chaired its early deliberations.
The phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” entered the American Constitution because George Mason of Virginia was unhappy that, as the Constitutional Convention was drawing to a close, the class of impeachable offenses had been limited to “treason or bribery.” Mason wanted a much broader definition. He illustrated his point by arguing that Hastings’s offenses would not be covered by the proposed skimpy language. Mason’s first suggested addition—“maladministration”—was thought too expansive, whereupon he offered, and the convention accepted, that sturdy old English term of art “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”