Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist will sit as the judge in the trial of a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Richmond this June, a move described as "very rare" by a Supreme Court spokesman and praised by court observers.
None of the court officials or scholars contacted yesterday could cite a previous example of a Supreme Court judge actually trying a case since the 19th century, when they did it routinely.
Rehnquist, who had never been a judge prior to being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, apparently expressed interest in acting as a trial judge after giving a speech to the Richmond Bar Association Feb. 14.
He told U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner he had never tried a civil case and would like the chance, according to wire service reports.
Warriner then extended an invitation for Rehnquist to preside at a 1983 civil rights case to be heard June 5 and 6 in Richmond.
Neither Rehnquist nor Warriner would comment yesterday.
Before the current federal court system was established in the late 1800s, Supreme Court justices "rode the circuit" as part of their jobs, hearing cases when they were not hearing appeals in Washington.
The practice ended with the establishment of the federal district and appeals courts, but there is no prohibition on Supreme Court justices sitting on district court, where federal cases are tried.
It is fairly common for Supreme Court justices to sit on U.S. circuit courts of appeals when dockets become overcrowded, officials said.
University of Virginia law professor and Supreme Court authority A. E. Dick Howard said he was "fascinated by the idea. My first reaction is really rather favorable, in the sense that many Supreme Court justices never had trial experience, yet are obliged to pass upon records made by trial judges."
The case involves suits brought by Julian Heislup Sr. and Linda L. Dixon against the town of Colonial Beach, Va.
Heislup and Dixon, employes of the town's police department, were suspended from their jobs after testifying about an incident in which a Colonial Beach police officer allegedly beat a 15-year-old boy.
Heislup and Dixon charge in the suit that the action taken against them constituted "an abridgement of free speech," and "a conspiracy to deter them from being a witness in any court in the U.S.," according to court documents.
Each seeks $800,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.
Attorneys for Heislup and Dixon and the town of Colonial Beach were unavailable yesterday to comment on the judge assigned to the case.
Howard said "it seems healthy for justices to be reminded of what goes on in the District Court room," and said he hoped other appellate judges "would take a close look at this experiment. They should be sympathetic to trying it themselves."
As to what sort of trial a man with no experience as a judge might conduct, Howard said, "Any lack of experience on Rehnquist's part will surely be overcome by native ability . . . If it doesn't turn out to be the best run trial, it will no doubt better run than many."