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Rehnquist Sits Silent at Center of Debate

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  • On the Web: United States v. Aguilar (1995)

  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 24, 1999; Page A16

    The great Aguilar debate has raged for days in the U.S. Senate. And the man who might resolve it all sits silently by, perhaps 10 feet away.

    Among the charges in the impeachment of President Clinton is that he lied to various aides in hopes that they would pass along the false information when they were called to testify before the grand jury.

    One lawyer after another has argued about "18 United States Code 1503," or the shorthand just "1503."

    And both prosecutors and the defense have cited the case of United States v. Aguilar, a 1995 Supreme Court decision that tried to clarify "1503" in particular, the catchall language at the end of the section that makes it a crime to "endeavor to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice."

    The author of Aguilar: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is presiding over the Senate trial.

    So did the president's conversations with his secretary, Betty Currie, and other aides "have a relationship in time, causation or logic with the judicial proceedings," to quote from Aguilar? Or did he "lack knowledge that his actions [were] likely to affect the . . . proceedings"?

    Yesterday, House manager Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) actually cried out for some help. "I wish the chief justice, since he wrote the opinion, could give us a lecture on that particular decision."

    The senators laughed. But Rehnquist kept his silence. He did, however, reconsider another of his rulings.

    On Friday, the chief justice ruled, based on advice from the Senate parliamentarian, that lawyers could object to the answering of certain questions.

    When the matter came up again yesterday, Rehnquist said: "I have second thoughts, frankly." The ruling had been based on a "very Delphic, almost incomprehensible statement" by then-Chief Justice Salmon Chase in the 1868 impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson.

    "The correct response," Rehnquist said, is that the lawyers have no right to object to any aspect of a senator's question.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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