Impeachment and Censure of Elected Officials

You may not always be happy with your elected, public officials, and it's not always because of their policies or politics. They're human beings, too, and sometimes they make mistakes just like the rest of us. Sometimes those mistakes lead to official sanctions or punishment, such as impeachment or censure, when they break the law or abuse their power.

For example, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford faces censure or impeachment for alleged misconduct while in office.

Claims against Governor Sanford

Governor Sanford's problems began in June of 2009 when he "disappeared" for several days. His family, the press, and other state officials, including the state's lieutenant governor, couldn't contact the governor for about four days. The governor's office released a statement that he was "hiking" and would return to the office the next day.

Ultimately, it was discovered that the governor had flown to Buenos Aires, Argentina to meet with a woman with whom he'd been having an extra-marital affair.

Since then, an investigation into the governor's behavior and activities led to nearly 40 claims of impropriety and official misconduct, such as using a state-owned airplane for personal or political purposes and dereliction of duty.

Impeachment and Censure

The claims against Governor Sanford are part of the formal process underway to have the governor impeached or censured.

Impeachment is the process used to remove an elected official from office. This removal power comes from the US Constitution for federal officials, or the state constitutions for state elected officials, such as Governor Sanford.

Censure is far less drastic than impeachment. Rather than removing the official from office, censure is formal, public scolding of the official. Like impeachment, the power to censure comes from the federal or state constitution, and it's also given to the legislative branch.

Although the two punishments are vastly different, the processes are very similar. The processes vary depending on whether a federal or state official is involved, and they differ from state to state, but in general:

  • It begins with a resolution or written statement by a member of the legislative branch explaining the official's misconduct and why disciplinary action is needed
  • There's an investigation, usually by an ethics committee, such as the federal Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, or the South Carolina Ethics Committee, which investigated Governor Sanford
  • If misconduct is found, the members of legislative branch:
    • Hold a vote to censure. A simple majority vote is usually all that's needed for censure
    • Hold a trial to impeach, which usually requires a two-thirds vote of the legislators who sit as a "jury" in the trial (it's the US Senate in the federal system)

    It's uncertain right now if Governor Sanford will be impeached or censured, or if anything will happen at all. A panel of South Carolina legislators decided that 28 of the charges levied against the governor don't justify impeachment. The panel is still considering whether nine other charges would justify impeachment. If not, it's almost certain that the governor will be censured, given the public outcry over his alleged indiscretions, abuse of office and misuse of public funds and property.


    Both impeachment and censure are rare, but they do happen. Censure is the most common disciplinary action taken. For example, in 2009, Illinois Governor Milorad "Rod" Blagojevich was impeached on charges of corruption and misconduct stemming from his alleged attempts to "sell" the US Senate seat left vacant when President Obama was elected.

    The power to have an elected official impeached or censured goes a long way to show that no one, not even powerful politicians, are above the law. The mechanisms help keep our elected officials honest and focused on the job at hand - representing fairly and effectively the people who put them in office.

    Questions for Your Attorney

    • Other than bad press and a bad reputation, is there anything that prevents an impeached official from running for public office again?
    • Who pays the official's legal bills when there's an impeachment or censure?
    • Is there any limit in how many times an official may be censured?
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