Rehnquist will preside over impeachment trial Chief justice tolerates no delay, lapse in decorum

December 20, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If President Clinton is tried on impeachment charges, the Senate will quickly learn what is already common knowledge across the street at the Supreme Court: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will take charge, and in a commanding way.

Although keeping control over 100 senators would require different instincts and talents than those Rehnquist uses in running a nine-judge court, those close to him say they have no doubt he will adapt energetically to the role of "presiding officer" over a "court of impeachment."

The Senate's rules, and impeachment tradition, give the presiding officer a dominant role. At an impeachment trial, speeches by the senators -- serving as jurors -- are banned during the trial, and only a majority vote can overturn any ruling by the presiding officer. A move to overrule him cannot be debated at all.

Rehnquist, associates suggest, would be anything but shy about asserting himself. He would run a brisk trial, perhaps forcing it to a conclusion well ahead of the schedule that would be likely if the Senate followed its usual habits.

The 74-year-old would likely be a stickler for the rules, jealous of the position's prerogatives, impatient with excessively wordy lawyers and an unforgiving monitor of any noise or high jinks in the galleries. As the presiding judge, he also would avoid giving any reliable indication of how he personally felt about presidential guilt or innocence.

Perhaps no chief justice has ever been better schooled in what a Senate trial entails. Rehnquist has thought deeply about the issue of impeachment, researched it thoroughly and written a definitive book about it: "Grand Inquests," published in 1992.

But beyond knowledge, he has an iron will, and he is used to having things his way.

He is a no-nonsense, trains-run-on-time manager at the court, and even his eight independent-minded colleagues know full well that failing to meet his deadlines would bring on his extreme displeasure.

They say that he is charming, too, and his charm lubricates cooperation.

During court hearings, lawyers who try to dodge tough questions from the bench, whether put to them by Rehnquist or by another justice, risk a caustic command from the chief to answer.

Even lawyers who are seasoned at the lectern, and familiar to the court, are not spared if they evade or equivocate. Just the other day, Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman, the government's top advocate before the court and a standout performer, was chided by Rehnquist for gently trying to put one justice briefly on hold while he finished answering another's question.

The public, too, regularly gets a taste of Rehnquist's sternness. He frequently "admonishes" (his word) the court's spectators in a hard-edged voice to keep quiet while the court remains in session.

Tourists often appear visibly shaken by the threat that looms in that voice, and lawyers in the room sometimes seem to shrink visibly from it.

In many ways, a Senate impeachment trial will more closely resemble an ordinary criminal or civil trial than the kinds of appeals proceedings Rehnquist is used to managing. Almost all his experience as a judge, in fact, has been at the appeals level.

He was named to the court in 1971 as an associate justice, with no experience as a trial judge.

Just once since joining the court has he sat as a trial judge. In June 1984, when he was still an associate justice, he accepted the invitation of a federal judge to conduct a two-day civil trial in a police brutality case in Richmond, Va.

"After one false start without the jury in the room and a series of conferences at the bench, Rehnquist quickly took control of the proceedings with a booming voice and authoritative manner," the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported at the time.

In 1986, Rehnquist was elevated to chief justice and his courtroom experience since then has been presiding over the appellate proceedings. He also presides over twice-annual sessions of an administrative body, the U.S. Judicial Conference -- a housekeeping agency that meets in private and is said to be run efficiently when he is in the chair.

Perhaps the best example of Rehnquist's commitment to moving things along is the change he has produced in the court's annual "long conference."

Faced with hundreds of new cases that stack up at the court during its summer recess, the court used to sit for four or five days in late September, going over those appeals to decide which to hear and which to pass up.

In recent years, more cases overall have been taken up at that conference but, under Rehnquist, the whole process has finished in a couple of hours on a single day.

His other leadership challenge comes near the end of each term, when the justices issue major rulings at a hectic pace. Rehnquist sets a target date to finish and nudges his colleagues to comply.

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