Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has suggested that Bill Clinton, though now out of office, could be impeached for his pardon of fugitive Marc Rich (although probably not for grabbing a couple of coffee tables). Can a former president be impeached?
Apparently, yes. Obviously a former president would not be subject to removal from office, but scholars say that Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, which says that impeachment may result in “disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States,” could apply. In practical terms, an impeachment would mean Clinton could not serve in any other federal elective or appointive office. Clinton would not have automatic protection against such a proceeding because he was exercising his constitutionally given pardon power. Scholars say abuse of such power can be grounds for congressional action. It is less clear whether a conviction could mean the removal of his pension, government-funded office, and other perks.
Although impeaching a former president would be a first, there is some scant precedent for impeaching someone already removed from office. In 1797, Sen. William Blount of Tennessee was charged with treason for a scheme to help the British take land from Florida controlled by the Spanish. (Fortunately, Florida land speculation is no longer considered a treasonable offense.) Blount was unanimously impeached by the House, then expelled by the Senate (a process separate from impeachment). The Senate decided to go ahead with its impeachment trial although in the end it acquitted Blount because he was no longer in office. William Belknap, secretary of war under Ulysses Grant, was impeached by the House on bribery charges and resigned from office. Though the Senate went ahead with his trial, he, too, was acquitted because he was no longer in office.
Explainer thanks Michael Gerhardt of the William and Mary School of Law, Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School, and Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.