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What Are High Crimes and Misdemeanors?

"High crimes and misdemeanors" originally referred to treason and bribery.
"High crimes and misdemeanors" is a phrase from the U.S. Constitution.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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In the United States, where this phrase enjoys a prominent position in the Constitution, high crimes and misdemeanors are forms of political misconduct that can be considered grounds for impeachment. The term itself is up to interpretation by legislators, with no hard and fast legal definition. When politicians are subjected to impeachment proceedings, members of the legislative body vote to determine whether their actions can be constituted high crimes and misdemeanors.

When the Constitution was framed, the authors wanted to create a mechanism for removing people from office if they failed to fulfill their duties or committed actions in violation of the public trust. Initially, it was proposed that public officials could be impeached for treason and bribery, wording that remains in the Constitution today. George Mason argued that these terms were too narrow, not leaving room for other cases where people might commit actions that made them unsuitable to hold positions in public office. In a compromise with James Madison, the phrase “other high crimes and misdemeanors” was added to the list of grounds for impeachment.

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If a politician is impeached, the process is civil, rather than criminal. Members of the legislature hear the evidence and vote on it, deciding whether the person committed high crimes and misdemeanors and should be removed from office. The outcome of the proceedings may also result in having criminal charges brought; if someone commits fraud, for example, it may be pursued in criminal court in addition to being discussed during the impeachment proceedings.

The idea of political crimes is nebulous and complex. The goal in adding a deliberately poorly defined term was to create room for the legislature to use its judgment, but it can also leave the impeachment process open to exploitation. People may bring articles of impeachment for dubious reasons, as long as they can provide some grounds for an argument that high crimes and misdemeanors were indeed committed.

Impeachment proceedings are often open to the public and are usually reported by the news media. This provides an opportunity for people to hear the evidence for themselves. Even if a politician is not impeached, voters may decline to vote for that person in a reelection campaign on the basis of the revelations that occur during trial. This is considered during such trials, as people must think about the impact the charges and evidence will have on a politician's reputation with the public.

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