Donald Trump’s impeachment trial started in the US Senate on Tuesday (January 21). In December, Trump became the third US President to be impeached in the country’s history. After a vote, the House of Representatives sent two articles of impeachment to the Senate.
Before the trial, Trump’s lawyers have made the argument that even if he did abuse his powers in the Ukraine affair, it would not matter, as the House of Representatives did not accuse him of committing an ‘indictable offence’.
Legal commentators are now urging Senate leaders to not take this argument seriously. They remind that for centuries, officials have been impeached in the British Parliament, even before the American Revolution (1765-1783), for abusing power or “high crimes and misdemeanors”, despite these not being categorised as indictable offences. The principle was also echoed by makers of the US Constitution, they posit.
A precedent being discussed is that of the Warren Hastings case — the famous failed attempt by the British Parliament to impeach India’s first governor-general.
What is the Warren Hastings impeachment case?
Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal (and the first de facto Governor-General of India), is considered among the most significant colonial administrators to have ruled the country. First as the governor of Bengal (1772-1774) and then as Governor-General (1774-1785), Hastings strengthened British rule in the country, and made profound changes in administration.
His role in shaping English interests in India notwithstanding, Hastings’s conduct while in office was called into question after he returned to Britain in 1785, most prominently by Edmund Burke, the noted British parliamentarian and philosopher.
In 1786, impeachment proceedings were initiated against Hastings, probing his alleged mismanagement, mistreatment of natives, and personal corruption while in India. William Pitt, the then British Prime Minister, first defended Hastings, but then joined the chorus against him.
The impeachment trial began in 1788, with Burke leading the prosecution by the House of Commons before the House of Lords.
During the trial, Burke rejected Hastings’s argument that ‘Western’ standards of legality could not be applied in the East. Burke insisted that under the Law of Nature, people in India were entitled to the same protection as those in Britain.
In 1795, however, the House of Lords acquitted Hastings, and the impeachment failed. Burke warned that such a verdict would live in “perpetual infamy”, and the trial gave rise to a wider debate on the role of the East India Company in India.
The 1989 work ‘The Impeachment of Warren Hastings: Papers from a Bicentenary Commemoration’ by G Carnall and C Nicholson says, “The impeachment was all about accountability, and both Pitt and Burke claimed that the power to call Hastings to a trial was essential to the well being of the British Constitution.”
Burke’s attempt to get Hastings impeached, despite the latter’s actions being non-indictable, is now being discussed again as the Trump trial unfolds.
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