Chief Justice Assumes a Speaking Part
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A13
For several days, his presence in the Senate chamber was imperceptible. But yesterday, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was part of the drama, revealing his passion for punctuality, adding some levity, and all the while seeming a bit awkward in the chamber that is so unlike the marble palace where he normally presides.
The man in the Gilbert and Sullivan stripes also provided a moment of comic relief early on when he expressed amusement over a Senate rule that forbids both sides in the impeachment trial from objecting to a question.
"The parliamentarian says they can only object to an answer and not to a question, which is kind of an unusual thing," Rehnquist said, chuckling. The break from decorum provoked laughter.
As the senators got their first chance to ask questions of the House managers and White House defenders yesterday, it fell to Rehnquist to recite the queries. For the most part, the 74-year-old bespectacled chief did it in a flat, detached voice. But on occasion he smirked at the tit-for-tat between the two sides before he put down the written question.
The chief justice's role in a presidential impeachment is largely ministerial. But Rehnquist – the highest judicial officer in the nation, a historian who wrote a book on impeachments and a man with a domineering personality – is not easily relegated to the margins.
So Rehnquist's character has emerged in small ways. The proceedings during the last two weeks did not begin until 1 p.m. because the chief justice refused to have his regular court schedule disturbed. His bad back, which requires regular exercising, as well as his yen for efficiency, has helped force regular breaks in the trial and nightly recesses at a reasonable hour, a departure from the Senate's usual sauntering pace.
Before yesterday, Rehnquist had only one occasion to rule on a substantive question. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) had objected to a House manager's use of the term "jurors" to describe the Senate. "I do not believe it would be a valid precedent to leave future generations that we would be looked upon merely as jurors."
Rehnquist was succinct in his ruling: "The objection of the senator from Iowa is well taken that the Senate is simply not a jury; it is a court in this case. Therefore, counsel should refrain from referring to the senators as jurors." And that was that.
But at times, Rehnquist has also seemed out of his element, perplexed by Senate culture, stumbling at some of the unfamiliar names and turning to the chamber's parliamentarian for advice. Because the speakers face toward the Senate, with their backs to the presiding officer, Rehnquist had to rely on a small television monitor under his desk to see the speaker's face and the trial exhibits.
Until he began relaying the questions yesterday, he simply sat, rocking slightly in the big leather chair above it all. He rarely wrote anything down, and on Thursday when he wanted to make a notation in the impeachment notebook before him, he had to borrow a pen from an aide, which he promptly returned.
It's a strangely substance-less role for the chief, and it stands in some contrast to the part Rehnquist has played offstage in the events that led to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Clinton.
Rehnquist wrote the court's 1988 decision in Morrison v. Olson upholding the independent counsel act, which allows a three-judge panel to appoint a prosecutor to investigate charges of government misconduct. As chief justice, he appointed the panel that named Starr in 1994. And then in 1996, Rehnquist joined the rest of the justices to rule that the president could not stop Paula Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit from going forward.
But now, actually in the Senate, presiding over the trial as required by the Constitution, his role is necessarily limited. It is up to the senators to determine the procedures and decide whether to convict Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Yesterday marked the first day of the question-and-answer phase, which will continue today as senators follow up on presentations by the House managers and White House lawyers.
Before Rehnquist began reading the questions aloud, he announced that he wanted the answers to be brief, saying it was the "rebuttable presumption" that they could be kept to five minutes. The chief is vigilant about the time clock at the court. But, unlike in the white marble courtroom, here Rehnquist cannot admonish lawyers to directly answer a question or be relevant.
Although many of the questions were predictable, the chief justice did not know what was coming. Questions were delivered to the desk one by one, and Rehnquist read each as he received it.
At one point, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) asked how much time each side had used. Rehnquist checked with the parliamentarian and first announced that the House managers had taken 54 minutes and the White House, 57. But then Rehnquist said he needed to correct that because the House managers had actually used up 64 minutes, not 54.
House manager James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), who was up next to speak, said, "I trust that doesn't mean I have to sit down, Mr. Chief Justice."
And in a rejoinder that only lawyers could love, Rehnquist quipped, "It's not retroactive."
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