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Legal Matters: Impeachment issues, from president to local officials

Unless you’ve been hiding in a forest to escape all news, you know that a president of the United States can be impeached — that is, charged with misconduct in office as the first step in removing him from office.

Can a local official also be impeached?

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Yes, but this column is not to imply or suggest that any elected official currently holding office — from county commissioner to president — should be removed from office. It is simply to explain generally about impeachment power after the recent Congressional action to impeach former President Donald Trump.

The U.S. Constitution sets out the grounds for impeachment and conviction as, “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The term “and conviction” is important because a trial is necessary and an official not found guilty will not be removed from office.

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Similarly, Maryland law provides that elected officials and federal judges can be impeached. Article 3, Section 26 of the state constitution states that state judges may be impeached by a majority of the House of Delegates and convicted by a two-thirds vote of the State Senate.

The state constitution does not directly address whether a county commissioner is an “officer of the state,” but there is evidence to conclude that he is not. A constitutional revision study for the Maryland Constitution in 1968 noted, “There are several classes of civil officers –town or city officers, county officers. … But in our opinion ... county commissioners are not subject to impeachment as officers of the (state) since the office of county commissioner is created by statute, and the legislature can by statute determine in what manner an incumbent may be removed from office.”

The issue of a possible impeachment arose in Allegany County — also a commissioner county — in 1968 as the result of a dispute between the commissioners and the county sheriff. In that case, the state attorney general’s office advised that impeachment of an elected official would require action by the General Assembly rather than by voter initiative.

If Carroll residents wanted to remove a county commissioner from office through impeachment, it appears likely that any removal effort would require the General Assembly to act.

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Impeachment actions against elected officials require a trial where the officials have the opportunity to show why they should be allowed to remain in office. In the case of former president Donald Trump, whose term of office ended with the swearing-in of President Joe Biden on Jan. 20, the question of Trump remaining in office became irrelevant.

But there could be a pension issue. Former presidents receive a pension equal to the pay that the head of an executive department would receive. As of 2020, the pension, which begins immediately after a president’s departure from office, was $219,200 per year.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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