Many of us have that aunt (or uncle) who eagerly brings up the most controversial political topic she can think of at family gatherings over the holidays. That topic this year will undoubtedly be the ongoing impeachment proceedings in the US House of Representatives against President Trump.
While you cannot stop her from bringing the topic up, you can try to engage her in the more mundane details of the impeachment process until she falls asleep on the sofa.
There are already plenty of primers on the impeachment process in the national government. The process for state officials is even more arcane because it has been used less often than the national process. In North Carolina’s history, only two state Supreme Court justices and one governor have been impeached – and only the governor (William Holden) was removed from office. So, I will offer a brief overview of how impeachment works in North Carolina.
Article IV, Section 4 of the North Carolina Constitution lays out the basics of impeachment:
The House of Representatives solely shall have the power of impeaching. The Court for the Trial of Impeachments shall be the Senate. When the Governor or Lieutenant Governor is impeached, the Chief Justice shall preside over the Court. A majority of the members shall be necessary to a quorum, and no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senators present. Judgment upon conviction shall not extend beyond removal from and disqualification to hold office in this State, but the party shall be liable to indictment and punishment according to law.
As with the US Constitution, impeachment is the start of the process with the NC House functioning as the rough equivalent of a grand jury. Removing an impeached individual from office requires a trial in the Senate and a two-thirds vote of all senators present.
There are not a lot of details on the impeachment process in that relatively brief paragraph, however. For those, you need to see Chapter 123 of North Carolina’s General Statutes, which covers everything from quorum for the trial phase to the oath senators must take before they are allowed to participate in the trial. One difference between the impeachment process in North Carolina and the national government is that impeached officials in North Carolina are suspended from office during the trial.
Chapter 123 also lays out the grounds for impeachment and removal:
123-5. Causes for impeachment.
Each member of the Council of State, each justice of the General Court of Justice, and each judge of the General Court of Justice shall be liable to impeachment for the commission of any felony, or the commission of any misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, or for malfeasance in office, or for willful neglect of duty.
(The Council of State includes the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of labor and commissioner of insurance.)
So, any official in North Carolina Council of State or any judge can be impeached for, not just illegal activity but also malfeasance, the “wrongful or unjust doing of some act which the doer has no right to perform.” For example, if a government official improperly forced business people to put money towards a fund that the official could use for his or her political benefit as a condition for government permit, that could be grounds for impeachment even if the act was not illegal.
As with the process at the national level, impeachment is as much about politics as it is about the law. That is reflected in the case of William Holden. The Republican governor was impeached on several charges related to his efforts to suppress the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. The charges included ordering illegal arrests and refusing to obey writs of habeas corpus. Soon after the Conservative Party (an amalgamation of Democrats and Whig Party members) won most of the seats in the General Assembly in 1870, they began the impeachment process against Holden. He was removed by the Senate after a seven-week trial in March of 1871. One of the first actions taken by the North Carolina Senate after Republicans took the majority in 2011 was to pass a bipartisan resolution pardoning Holden of the conviction it handed him 140 years earlier.
Hopefully, any family political arguments over the holidays will not take 140 years to resolve.