ArtIII.S2.C1.9.8 Impeachment and Political Question Doctrine

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

In 1993, the Court applied the political question doctrine to a judicial challenge to impeachment proceedings. In Nixon v. United States, a former federal judge challenged his removal by the Senate.1 He argued that the Senate proceedings used to convict him, which allowed a committee of Senators, rather than the whole Senate, to hear evidence against him after he was impeached by the House, violated the constitutional requirement that the Senate “try all Impeachments.” 2 In an opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court held that Nixon presented a nonjusticiable political question.3 A few primary considerations motivated the Court’s conclusion. First, the Court noted that the text of the Constitution gives the Senate “sole” authority to try impeachments, which, according to the Court, amounted to a sufficient “textual commitment” of the question as to what “try” meant to a coordinate department.4 Second, the Court noted that the existence of a firm textual commitment was strengthened by a lack of “judicially manageable standards” in the vagueness of the word “try” ; the Court contrasted that vague term with the concrete requirement that convictions require a two-thirds vote, concluding that the Senate was intended to have discretion over the precise procedures for impeachments.5 The Court distinguished the alleged “textual commitment” that was insufficient in Powell v. McCormack, maintaining that the textual commitment to the Senate of defining “try” did not undermine any other provision to the Constitution, such as the enumerated qualifications set forth in Article I, Section 5 that were at stake in Powell.6 Altogether, the Court concluded that without a judicially manageable standard to limit the Senate’s authority, such as the specific textual rules on qualifications that were present in Powell, it could not overturn the Senate’s judgment.7

506 U.S. 224 (1993). back
Id. at 229 ( “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments” ) (citing U.S. Const. art. I, § 3, cl. 6). back
Id. at 238. back
Id. at 235–36. back
Id. at 228–29. back
Id. at 237–38 (citing Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 519 (1969)). back
Id. back