Rehnquist's Call

By Wagner, David | Insight on the News, January 25, 1999 | Go to article overview

Rehnquist's Call

Wagner, David, Insight on the News

The chief justice of the United States has not presided over a trial of the chief executive since 1868. William Rehnquist brings expeditious dignity to the role.

When the president of the United States is tried, the chief justice shall preside" With this laconic phrase, the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 3, paragraph 6) gives William H. Rehnquist, a conservative Republican and member of the U.S. Supreme Court since 1971, a key role in a Senate trial of President Clinton. (This clause also is the only place where the Constitution says there is even such a thing as a "chief justice" in the United States. Article III, which deals with the federal judiciary, only specifies a Supreme Court.)

Immediately after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on two counts on Dec. 19, a chorus of voices proclaimed that the chief justice never would have the opportunity to fulfill his constitutional role to preside over a Senate trial of the chief executive. Predictions were that Senate leaders, recognizing the virtual impossibility of assembling a two-thirds majority of senators to convict, likely would attempt to sidestep a trial by proposing a quick compromise on a resolution of censure. Why go through a trial, the argument ran, if the nation already knows the facts and most senators already have made up their minds?

Yet as the date approached for the reconvening of Congress on Jan. 6, more sober counsel argued that the Senate's constitutional duty required that a trial begin and the evidence be presented by the House managers who would serve as prosecutors. Both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota stated that a trial at least must be initiated, thus opening the president to the unpredictable dynamic of the trial process, the complications of the Senate rules and the possible impact of evidence officially received by the House but not presented in the House debate.

Indeed, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas urged Senators not to make up their minds until they had reviewed for themselves this evidence, which purportedly relates to Jane Doe No. 5 in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Last March, Lisa Myers of NBC News identified Jane Doe No. 5 as Juanita Broaddrick, a Clinton campaign worker who told associates 20 years ago that she was allegedly assaulted and raped by Clinton who was then Arkansas attorney general. Broaddrick later recanted her story, but Jones' lawyers charged that she was bribed and intimidated by Clinton associates to do so.

So the odds are high, as Insight goes to press, that the chief justice will be sitting in an unaccustomed chair in the U.S. Senate chamber directing the sergeant at arms to proclaim the words required by Senate rule and custom: "Hear ye! Hear ye! All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment, while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against William Jefferson Clinton."

Even after any trial begins, the scheduling of an impeachment trial still remains under the control of the Senate. Under normal circumstances, the Senate does very little work on the Senate floor during January and February: Legislation must be prepared in committee, the president's State of the Union address and the budget are not presented until the end of January and Congress takes annual leave for the 10day Washington's Birthday recess. The Senate has the option to proceed with a trial during this period without any threat to a normal legislative schedule.

Moreover, Rehnquist on the bench always has displayed a businesslike, no-nonsense demeanor, insisting that proceedings move with dispatch. While presiding over the Senate, the rules give him full leave to issue writs, make rulings from the chair and keep order on the premises. His whole history suggests a conservative approach.

During the 1970s, Rehnquist was the only Nixon appointee on the Supreme Court who proved a devotee of the conservative "strict constructionist" judging on which Nixon had campaigned. …

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