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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher December 19, 2011

GOP Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner says he's done most impeachments in U.S. history

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was so incensed at U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a Dec. 8, 2011 congressional hearing he threatened to invoke the political death penalty.


Removal from office by Congress is so extreme, and so rare, we thought it applied only to presidents and federal judges. But it also can be imposed on "civil officers" -- possibly including, as Sensenbrenner suggested, Department of Justice officials.  

Sensenbrenner used the House Judiciary Committee hearing to chastise Holder for not providing more information about the Fast and Furious gun program, which has been the target of Republican criticism.

For the suburban Milwaukee congressman to raise the specter of impeachment was extraordinary. But so was another comment Sensenbrenner made in issuing his threat when he declared:

"I've done more impeachments than anybody else in the history of the country."

Now, we know Sensenbrenner has served in the House since the song "My Sharona" was a No. 1 hit in 1979. But many congressional representatives have served longer tenures and impeachment has been done for more than 200 years.

So, let’s go back and see whether Sensenbrenner has done the most impeachments -- and review some tales of officials behaving badly along the way.

We’ll start with what got Sensenbrenner so riled up, then dig into impeachment.

Fast and Furious

Operation Fast and Furious, as described by The New York Times, was a federal  investigation from late 2009 to early 2011 into an Arizona-based gun-trafficking network. ''Straw buyers'' bought guns, which were smuggled to Mexican drug cartels. Hundreds of guns were lost and two were found near the scene where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010.

A week after the hearing in which Sensenbrenner threatened impeachment, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., announced that 75 House members, including Sensenbrenner, had signed a no-confidence resolution against Holder.
Gosar cited Fast and Furious in his announcement.

Impeachment explained

Impeachment is a mechanism for removal of the president, vice president and other unspecified federal "civil officers" found to have engaged in "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors," according to the Congressional Research Service.

Under the Constitution, the House determines whether someone should be impeached. If the House votes to impeach -- in other words, to file charges -- the matter goes to the Senate for trial. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate, but removal from office requires only a majority vote. There is no appeal.

At trial, several House members serve as prosecutors who are called "managers." Sensenbrenner argues he has done more impeachments than anyone based on his role as a manager in four of the 19 impeachment trials that have been conducted since 1799.

The 19 trials, according to a Senate summary, included two presidents -- Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom were acquitted -- a Supreme Court justice, 14 federal judges, one secretary of war and a senator.

The reasons for impeachment varied widely, as is made clear by these cases involving federal judges who were impeached and convicted:

John Pickering of New Hampshire, impeached in 1804 for presiding over a trial "in a state of total intoxification"; West Humphreys of Tennessee, in 1862 for adovcating secession.; and Alcee Hastings of Florida, in 1989 for conspiring to obtain a $150,000 bribe from two mob-connected felons.

As for Sensenbrenner, he was a manager in Clinton’s impeachment trial and in trials involving three federal judges.

President Bill Clinton: Clinton was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in 1999 in connection with his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but was acquitted of the charges by the Senate. The verdicts capped a 13-month ordeal, including a five-week trial.

Walter Nixon of Mississippi: Nixon was removed from the federal bench in 1989 and convicted of two counts of lying to a grand jury about talking with a county prosecutor about a marijuana smuggling case involving the son of a wealthy contractor. He earlier was convicted of perjury in criminal court and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Samuel Kent of Texas: The Senate dismissed its impeachment proceedings in 2009 after Kent resigned from the bench. Kent’s resignation came shortly after he received a 33-month prison sentence for pleading guilty to lying to judicial investigators about sexually assaulting two female employees.

Thomas Porteous of Louisiana: The Senate convicted Porteous in December 2010 on charges that included receiving cash and favors from lawyers who had dealings in his court, and using a false name to elude creditors. He was removed from office.

In backing Sensenbrenner’s claim, spokeswoman Amanda Infield provided a list of the managers who prosecuted the 19 impeachments. The Library of Congress told us it has no record that compiles the managers. So we checked Sensenbrenner’s sources and consulted others, including House and Senate documents.

Our verdict

Many House members have served as a manager in one or two impeachments. Texas Democrat Hatton Sumners managed three during his 34-year House career, which ended in 1947. But only Sensenbrenner has managed four impeachments.

We rate his statement True.

Our Sources, "Sensenbrenner floats impeachment over ‘Fast and Furious,’" Dec. 9, 2011

New York Times, "Holder, grilled on gun inquiry, says he won’t resign," Dec. 8, 2011

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, "Sensenbrenner questions Attorney General Holder on Fast and Furious," Dec. 8, 2011

Interview and email interview, Jim Sensenbrenner press secretary Amanda Infield, Dec. 12-15, 2011

New York Times, "Impeachment," Jan. 12, 2008

New York Times, "The president’s acquittal," Feb. 13, 1999

New York Times, "Impeachment articles dismissed," July 23, 2009

New York Times, "Senate, for just the eighth time, votes to oust a federal judge," Dec. 8, 2010

Congressional Record, William Belknap impeachment

Los Angeles Times, "Senate convicts U.S. judge on perjury counts," Feb. 4, 1989

Congressional Research Service, "Impeachment: An overview of constitutional provisions, procedure and practice," April 8, 2010

House Resolution 565, appointment of Samuel Kent impeachment managers, June 24, 2009

Library of Congress, appointment of Samuel Kent impeachment managers

Library of Congress, appointment of Walter Nixon impeachment managers

House Resolution 614, appointment of Bill Clinton impeachment managers, Dec. 19, 1998

Washington Post, Bill Clinton impeachment managers, Jan. 14, 1999

House Resolution 1165, appointment of Thomas Porteous impeachment managers, March 11, 2010

Henry Hyde, Bill Clinton impeachment trial opening remarks, Jan. 14, 1999

U.S. Senate, Impeachment

U.S. Senate, "War secretary’s impeachment trial"

U.S. Senate, Impeachment of Alcee Hastings

U.S. Senate, Impeachment trial of Harry Claiborne

Houston Chronicle, Harry Claiborne impeachment managers, July 23, 1986

Deschler’s Precedents, Impeachment of Judge Ritter

Deschler’s Precedents, Impeachment of Harold Louderback

U.S. Senate, "Procedure and guidelines for impeachment trials in the United States Senate," on Halsted Ritter, Harold Louderback and George English impeachments, Aug. 15, 1986

Precedents of the House of Representatives, Mark Delahay impeachment

Precedents of the House of Representatives, Harold Louderback impeachment

Extracts from the Journal of the United States Senate, William Belknap, Andrew Johnson impeachments

Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives, West Humphreys, James Peck, Samuel Chase, John Pickering, William Blount, Charles Swayne impeachments, March 4, 1907

Proceedings of the United States Senate, Robert Archbald impeachment

Political Corruption in America, 2003, "Billboard Hot 100 songs of the year"

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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GOP Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner says he's done most impeachments in U.S. history

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