Impeachment – the ousting of presidents by the actions of parliaments and similar representative bodies – seems to be in vogue just now, whether in Zimbabwe, Brazil and now in the US in the case of Donald Trump. There is even talk of it’s being revived to deal with Boris Johnson’s shenanigans. But what is it and where did it come from?
Although most associated with presidential systems, its origins lie in medieval England, a time when the monarch’s Great Council was deemed to have the powers of a court of law.
The Council was what we know of as the House of Lords now. It was only with the early development of the House of Commons that the notion of impeachment developed. The bicameral nature of Parliament led to the interesting constitutional innovation: the idea that Parliament can put on trial ministers of the monarch for failing in their duty, even though those ministers were (and in theory remain to this day) responsible to the monarch, not to Parliament.
This is the thinking: It was accepted that “the king can do no wrong”; it followed that if the king apparently did a wrong, such as breach a longstanding agreement with Parliament, it was the king’s agent, not the king, who had done the wrong – a member of the king’s executive, one of his advisers.
The Great Council, when it was a baronial body, always had the role of a judicial body, albeit mainly to approve the legal judgments of the king. So, the argument ran, the remnant of that Council, the House of Lords (barons and bishops), could judge individuals but not bring charges against anyone. The House of Commons, however, had no such restriction, so it took it upon itself to bring charges as necessary against the monarch’s ministers to the Lords for their judgment – impeachment. Continue reading