Impeachment in a Nutshell: How Missouri’s Governor Could Lose His Job

Feb 23, 2018
Originally published on February 23, 2018 4:33 pm

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was indicted Thursday evening on a charge of felony invasion of privacy. Since then, Missouri legislators have been making moves toward impeachment - but what does that mean, and how does it work in Missouri?

What is impeachment?

Impeachment is a process where government officials can be forced out of office for conduct not in line with what is expected of them.

In Missouri’s case, state officials can be impeached for “crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”

This may seem like a long list of potential offenses, but it may not be as daunting as it seems.

“In a case some years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the long Missouri language in essence to mean that one can be impeached only for violating some law or another,” Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, told us. “It doesn’t have to be a criminal law, apparently, and if it is a criminal law, the supreme court doesn’t specify the severity.”

So Gov. Greitens may face a battle for his job, especially if it becomes increasingly clear he committed a crime, as his indictment charges.

What would the process to impeach Greitens look like?

Impeachment is really a two-step process. First, the Missouri House of Representatives must vote to impeach Gov. Greitens. If this vote succeeds, he will have technically been impeached, but he will not yet be removed from office.

That’s when the impeachment moves into its second phase: a trial. In this trial, a commission of seven “eminent jurists” would hear in favor of and against Greitens’ impeachment. In order to remove Greitens from office, at least five of the seven members of this commission would have to convict him.

Unlike impeachments at the federal level, impeachment trials in Missouri do not ask the commission to decide if what a person is accused of is serious enough to merit removal from office. The commission would only need to come to the conclusion that what Greitens is accused of actually happened.

“Eminent jurists?” Who are these people?!

Normally, when a state official in Missouri is impeached, the commission that decides if they are removed from office is the Missouri Supreme Court. However, to avoid bias, if a member of the Missouri Supreme Court or the governor is impeached, a separate commission is elected by Missouri’s Senate.

Missouri’s constitution only says that these people should be “eminent jurists” — prominent members of the legal profession — so the commission could be made up of anyone fitting that description.

Would an impeachment trial be related to Gov. Greitens’ criminal trial?

Not necessarily. Impeachment in Missouri has a lot of similarities to a criminal trial, but a criminal trial of Greitens and an impeachment trial would not have to be related to each other. They could be decided at different times, and neither decision would necessarily affect the other.

So what happens next?

Right now, Gov. Greitens remains unimpeached. However, if the Missouri House of Representatives votes to impeach him, the full process of trial will begin.

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