High Crimes and Misdemeanors

It is impossible (well, difficult) to be alive today and not be aware of Donald Trump. And if you are aware of him, it is difficult to overlook the fact that his conduct as President of the USA is (to say the least) unorthodox. So unorthodox that the US House of Representatives undertook an official impeachment enquiry. In American law, the articles of impeachment are formulated by the lower house, for trial in the upper house. A President is not removed from office except by a two thirds vote in the Senate.

It all starts with the US Constitution.

The American Constitution was the result of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The first draft was prepared in 1787, and it was ratified in 1788 after Congress voted to transmit the document to the thirteen states for ratification. By 21 June 1788, it had been ratified by the minimum number of nine states required under Article VII. The first ten amendments to the Constitution were adopted in 1789. They are collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights: they reflect the English Bill of Rights of 1689 – a century earlier – and a couple of additional protections drawn from Magna Carta as interpreted by Sir Edward Coke.

Section 4 of Article II of the Constitution provides:

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

There is a continuing debate about what is meant by “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

Nowadays misdemeanour is generally a reference to a relatively minor offence. The OED gives the current meaning of the word in the law as “One of a class of indictable offences which were formerly regarded as less heinous than those called felonies…” and the Macquarie defines it as “a less serious crime”. The English Dictionary (1742) by N. Bailey defines misdemeanour as “an offence or fault” whereas Johnson (1755) defines it as “Offence; ill behaviour; something less than an atrocious crime”. Webster’s International Dictionary (1902) defines misdemeanor ( no u) as “(Law) a crime less than a felony” and adds a note quoting from Blackstone:

“As a rule, in the old English law, offences capitally punishable were felonies, all other indictable offences were misdemeanors. In common usage the word crime is employed to denote offences of the deeper and more atrocious dye, while small faults and omissions of less consequence are comprised under the gentler name of misdemeanors.”

(Even though Blackstone spelt the word misdemeanours with a u, Webster drops it in the quotation.) The American Heritage Dictionary adopts a definition, consistent with Webster: “(Law) an offence less serious than a felony”. In England, the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour was abolished by the Criminal Law Act of 1967.

It is to be noted that many dictionaries still distinguish between the ordinary meaning of misdemeanour and the meaning at law. The OED, for example, defines misdemeanour as follows:

    1. a.1.a Evil behaviour, misconduct. Now rare.

b.1.b An instance of this; a misdeed, offence.

    1. Law. One of a class of indictable offences which were formerly regarded as less heinous than those called felonies; high misdemeanour

The New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) defines misdemeanour as “a minor wrongdoing” and adds “Law a non-indictable offence, regarded in US (and formerly in the UK) as less serious than a felony”.

(It is interesting to see the silent nod to the Criminal Law Act of 1967 which abolished the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour).

Johnson does not make such a clear distinction between ordinary usage and legal usage, when he defines it as “Offence; ill behaviour; something less than an atrocious crime”.

Given the way the words are printed in the US Constitution (“…high Crimes and Misdemeanors…) it is possible that the adjective high was intended to qualify both nouns (Crimes and Misdemeanors). That would raise the question: what is a high misdemeanour? The OED definition of misdemeanour (quoted above) defines it, in part, as high misdemeanour.   The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” as one of the criteria for removing public officials who abuse their office was suggested by George Mason of Virginia. Before Mason’s suggestion, other phrases had been suggested, including high misdemeanor, maladministration, and other crime. George Mason was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. (He was one of the three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution.) So, it seems that we do not have to unpick the idea of high misdemeanour.

This becomes clearer, when you consider that, at the Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph (a lawyer from Virginia) said impeachment should be reserved for those who “misbehave.”  Charles Pinckney (from South Carolina) said, it should be reserved “for those who behave amiss, or betray their public trust.” These both seem to fit within the contemporary understanding of misdemeanor.

The phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanours was used often enough in England to remove officials. Since 1386, the English Parliament had used the term high crimes and misdemeanours as the ground on which officials of the Crown could be impeached. The allegation was used to remove from office officials accused of widely varying acts (not all of them criminal offences) such 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. The common feature of these accusations was that the official had abused the power of their office and was unfit to serve.

Section 4 of Article II provides that an official can be removed from office on “…impeachment for, and Conviction of…” (Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors). The impeachment investigation is a matter for the House of Representatives; conviction is a matter for the Senate. The House of Representatives in USA has begun impeachment proceedings against only 19 officials – one U.S. senator, four presidents (including Trump), one cabinet member, and 13 federal judges. It is notorious that three presidents have been impeached by the lower house, but they have been spared conviction in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868, but not convicted in the Senate. Richard Nixon was impeached, but resigned when the Watergate tapes surfaced and before a trial in the Senate: on 27 July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment charging Nixon with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. He resigned on 8 August 1974, before the Senate could hear the case against him. And Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1999, but not convicted in the Senate (there were 50 votes against him, where 67 votes were needed for a conviction: despite the oath Senators must take before sitting on an impeachment trial, it all ultimately turns on politics).

The misdeeds of Nixon and Clinton are well-remembered by most people. Johnson was President much longer ago: he was Lincoln’s Vice-President and took office after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865; he was in favour of slavery. The House voted to impeach him in February 1868, three days after he sacked his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, contrary to the provisions of the Tenure of Office Act.

Which raises the question what impeach means. According to the OED impeach originally meant “To impede, hinder, prevent”, with supporting quotes from 1380 to 1690. Closer to the mark, it is also defined as meaning “To challenge, call in question, cast an imputation upon, attack; to discredit, disparage” with supporting quotes up to 1888, with the earliest from Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“You do impeach your modesty too much To leave the City, and commit yourself into the hands of one that loves you not.” (1590).

Impeach is also defined as meaning “To bring a charge or accusation against; to accuse of, charge with.”, supported by quotations from 1380 (Wyclif) to 1840 (Dickens).

As the House of Representatives has resolved that Donald Trump engaged in high crimes or misdemeanors, it has impeached him accordingly, but he will not be removed from office unless the Senate convicts him (by a two- thirds majority) of either of the articles of impeachment resolved by the lower house.  At the time of writing, the articles of impeachment have not been sent to the Senate, because the Republican Senate leader (Mitch McConnell) is talking about having a trial without hearing from any witnesses, or receiving any documents.   Senator McConnell clearly has no idea what a trial is.

Conviction in the Senate is where raw politics saved Johnson and Clinton. Johnson avoided conviction in the Senate by just one vote. Clinton survived conviction by 17 votes. Trump may get a similar result, given the power of the Republicans in the Senate, even though his erroneous ways have been far more egregious than those of Johnson or Clinton.

It would be the great irony of our times that a President, who has tormented the English language as much as George W Bush did, should finally raise the greatest challenge for English: the meaning of the key phrase in section 4 of Article II of the Constitution.