I love it when I learn something that should be obvious — something seemingly trivial, but not so, actually — that clears up a fundamental misunderstanding and enables one to see something in an entirely new way.
On CNN tonight, a commentator explained that “high crimes and misdemeanors” means crimes committed by individuals in positions of high office. Thus “high” does not modify “crimes,” which I always thought.
The way I always understood the phrase was — and it never quite made sense to me — that an elected official can be impeached for (1) “high crimes,” meaning very serious ones, perhaps treason or failing to faithfully execute the laws, plus (perhaps) serious crimes committed while in office, such as the usual worst felonies: murder, rape, kidnapping, etc.; or (2) “misdemeanors”: more petty crimes not befitting a public official or showing unfitness for office, such as cronyism or graft.
The adjective “high” modifies both “crimes” and “misdemeanors.” It is not meant to be fused with “crimes.” In context, “high” means committed by persons holding high office.
— Roger W. Smith
February 9, 2021