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  • Political Junkie: Impeachments and Elections
  •   Senate Domain Affirmed on Impeachments

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 14, 1993; Page A11

    The Senate alone may decide how to proceed when the president, a federal judge or other public official is impeached, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

    The case had been brought by former U.S. district judge Walter L. Nixon Jr., who in 1989 was convicted by the Senate of "high crimes and misdemeanors" stemming from a perjury conviction three years earlier. The former Mississippi jurist contended that the Senate violated its constitutional mandate to "try all impeachments" when it had a committee, instead of the full Senate, take testimony.

    Lower courts had refused to intervene in Nixon's case, but in September U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin ruled that the Senate's 1989 conviction of another judge, Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, was improper.

    Hastings, who was convicted in the Senate two weeks before Nixon, won a House seat in Florida's 23rd Congressional District in November and last week was sworn in to the body that impeached him.

    Impeachment begins in the House, where the Judiciary Committee investigates an official. A simple majority vote of the full House formally brings impeachment charges. The trial is conducted by the Senate. If found guilty by a two-thirds vote of senators present, the impeached official is removed from office.

    Yesterday's ruling puts to rest the conflict among lower courts about whether the judiciary may review Senate procedure and also validates the convictions of three federal judges since 1986. In each case, evidence had been collected by and testimony given to committees, which then reported to the full Senate. The third judge, Harry E. Claiborne of Nevada, was impeached and convicted in 1986.

    In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court said it could not actually review Nixon's complaint because impeachment procedure is the domain of the legislative branch. As a result, the case is not "justiciable," that is, cannot be resolved by the courts.

    Rehnquist referred to Article 1, Section 3, Clause 6 of the Constitution, which says, "The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachment."

    "This authority is reposed in the Senate and nowhere else," Rehnquist wrote.

    Nixon had hinged his argument on the word "try" in Article 1, saying the Senate did not truly "try" him because a 12-member committee did most of the gathering of evidence and testimony. Under that procedure, he maintained, "impeachment becomes easy {and} conviction is politically expedient. . . . "

    But Rehnquist countered that the framers of the Constitution intended "try" to be read more broadly.

    Overall, the chief justice said, "Judicial involvement in impeachment proceedings, even if only for purposes of judicial review, is conterintuitive because it would eviscerate the 'important constitutional check' placed on the judiciary by the framers."

    "Nixon's argument would place final reviewing authority with respect to impeachment in the hands of the same body that the impeachment process is meant to regulate."

    Nixon had been chief judge for the Southern District of Mississippi when he was convicted in federal court, stemming from his statements that he did not try to influence a state prosecutor's handling of a drug trafficking case. That case involved the son of a business associate who had given Nixon a deal on oil and gas royalties.

    Despite that conviction, Nixon, a federal judge appointed for life, remained on the bench. Only the Senate's impeachment conviction stripped him of the judgeship.

    © Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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