SOMETIME TODAY, a delegation from the House of Representatives will walk across the Capitol building to deliver a set of documents to the Senate. For only the 13th time in American history, a federal official has been impeached by the House, and the relevant papers must be carried to the Senate side in preparation for a trial. There has not been an impeachment trial for 50 years, but now one is needed to consider the case against Judge Harry Claiborne, who was convicted of tax evasion and now sits in a federal prison in Alabama.
The shame of such a fall from grace would lead most people to resign from office and withdraw from public life. Not Judge Claiborne. He apparently likes the idea of receiving his government salary checks -- $78,000 a year -- in a cell, and he proposes to resume his judicial duties after completing his sentence. Since judges hold office for life, the only way to stop this travesty is to impeach him.
Action in the House was fairly uncomplicated. The Judiciary Committee held a hearing and reported a resolution of impeachment. After an hour of debate, the full House approved the resolution yesterday by a unanimous vote. But things are much more complicated in the Senate, where there must now be a full-scale trial. Ten of these proceedings have been held, but the rules governing procedure -- which were adopted in 1868 for the trial of President Andrew Johnson -- must be updated. A beginning was made in 1974, when it looked as if President Nixon would have to stand trial, but he resigned before the full House acted. Now the Senate Rules Committee will review the rules governing an impeachment trial and suggest changes.
Other questions must also be settled. Who will be chosen to preside at the trial? Which House members will manage the case? How can the Senate schedule be adjusted so that normal and important business will not be sidetracked? How can Judge Claiborne be prevented from drawing out the trial? This may be the only such proceeding most Americans will ever see. Still, it would be much better if Judge Claiborne admitted his behavior is disgraceful and insupportable, and resigned before the trial began.