What does the path to impeachment in Virginia look like?

Constitutional expert: Pursuing impeachment for Northam, Fairfax is a ‘stretch'


RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia lawmakers are discussing the possibility of impeachment in light of recent controversies surrounding top Democrats in the commonwealth, and many people are wondering how likely removal would be.

According to an expert, it’s a long shot.

John Dinan is a Wake Forest University politics professor who wrote a book on the Virginia Constitution. He said pursuing articles of impeachment against either Northam or Fairfax is a “stretch.”

Any move toward impeachment right now would be unprecedented. No statewide elected official in Virginia has faced it since at least the year 1900, according to Dinan.

“We really are in uncharted territory here in terms of actually talking about using impeachment proceedings,” he said.

He believes the cases against Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Fairfax are weak in part because there haven’t been any court proceedings.

“You do have an allegation of criminal action in the case of the lieutenant governor,” he said. “There, the conversation continues about the possibility of impeachment a little longer than it does about the possibility of impeachment applying to the governor’s behavior.”

In impeachment cases in other states, the actions in question usually happened in the person’s political career -- in these cases, the actions happened before.

“We actually have had seven or eight cases in American history where governors have actually been impeached and removed from office, but all of that behavior has been either corrupt activity while they’re in office or being actually indicted or convicted of a crime while in office,” Dinan said.

However, the actions don’t have to be criminal to be subject to impeachment. Virginia law describes grounds as, “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor.”

One delegate said allegations against Fairfax would be “high crime.”

If impeachment were to happen, here’s how it would go.

A majority of the House of Delegates would have to say that the actions meet the standards of impeachment.

The Senate would then hold a trial and decide if the official is guilty of what House said he or she did. The Senate needs a two-thirds majority to remove the official.

What about an investigation into allegations against Fairfax, which he and many Democrats are calling for? Dinan says the FBI won’t be involved, despite pleas from Fairfax.

There could be public hearings, like the ones in the confirmation process for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Private hearings in front of a committee are also a possibility, or lawmakers could appoint an investigator -- like in Robert Mueller’s Russian meddling probe, according to Dinan.

Some people have been wondering whether there could be a recall on one of these Democrats. Unlike in California, where it happened in 2003, Dinan said that’s not a possibility in Virginia, so the public won’t be able to vote anyone out mid-term.