Law and Politics of Impeachment

This article argues that politics, not law, drives the narrow understanding of the legitimate grounds for impeachment. Lawyers usually succeed in setting the framework for the charge of impeachment. But politicians, though echoing lawyers' rhetoric, vote in a way that maximizes their reelection chances. A growing number of scholars bemoan this “over-legalization of impeachment” and argue that constitutions should allow impeachment for “general dissatisfaction” since politicians will inevitably act politically. I argue that law is not the problem. Politicians legalize the debate for their own purposes. Since 1991, there have been four cases of the successful ousting of a president by impeachment in countries with a general dissatisfaction clause. In all four, legislatures chose narrower grounds to prosecute the impeachment. I conclude that either constitutional designers should limit impeachment to general dissatisfaction or accept the inevitable and civilizing hypocrisies of politics.