How to try a president perplexes participants

Senate trial: No appeal, few precedents, rules made on the run, unclear standard to convict.

January 14, 1999

THE GAMES are over. The trial of President Clinton before the Senate is about removing a president from office, an awesome thing that has never happened.

The need to do it right establishes challenges for all participants.

One is for Rep. Henry J. Hyde and his fellow "House managers" to make a convincing case that the misdeeds, if proven, merit removal from office.

They ignored this when the House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr. Clinton. Now they must show why this case should go forward. A simple majority of senators will decide.

Another challenge is for White House counsel to defer to the legitimacy of this court. Unlike criminal trials, there is no setting up an appeal. The Senate's judgment is final.

If the Senate decides -- after 48 hours of argument and 16 hours of questions -- that either article of impeachment should go forward, an adversarial trial will be necessary. That is the only way to seek a conviction by two-thirds of senators.

Then few constraints should govern calling witnesses. The record from the House Judiciary Committee and grand jury would not suffice. Senators' concern over their appearance of dignity is not nearly so important as getting the verdict right and making the trial wholly public.

In the first article of impeachment, about perjury, the Senate must examine the subject of Mr. Clinton's testimony. Although the salacious grand jury matter should have remained secret, that does not justify Senate censorship of it now in a trial that must be transparent to gain public trust.

For the second article, alleging obstruction of justice, key players must be cross-examined, a lengthy process. No promises of brevity should be made.

This is a trial that starts with its procedure undecided and its key decisions deferred. Even the proof needed for conviction is unstated.

Is it guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as in criminal trials? Or a preponderance of evidence, as in most civil trials? Or the more demanding "clear and convincing evidence" of some civil trials?

The Constitution does not say. Impeachment trials of judges did not settle the issue. Each senator must decide.

The role of Chief Justice William Rehnquist is crucial. He should set high standards of admissibility of evidence, pointing toward a high standard for conviction. If a majority of senators wants to overrule him, they must be willing to be seen doing so.

The Senate should set a model of fairness and focus so that a future Senate can, if necessary, look up this record and see how to do it right.

West side merger

Maryland General: Its affiliation with University hospital promises cost savings, better health services.

TODAY'S scheduled announcement of Maryland General Hospital's merger into the larger University of Maryland Medical System is a welcome development for residents of downtown Baltimore and for west side redevelopment efforts.

This sound business move should strengthen University's health-care system while assuring that two thriving medical centers will anchor renewal along Howard Street.

Maryland General is a low-cost, 300-bed community hospital; University is a high-cost, 747-bed teaching and specialty-care facility. Together, the two can save on overhead and consolidate programs, with Maryland General handling routine patients and University focusing on difficult cases.

This could be the first step in a larger medical consolidation on Baltimore's west side. University is discussing partnership arrangements with Bon Secours Hospital, which is doing its own downsizing: concentrating inpatient services at one site while earmarking other health services for its Liberty Medical Center campus.

Such mergers and affiliations are common across the country. The Baltimore region has far too many hospital beds. Competition for managed-care contracts is driving hospitals to seek partners that help them lower costs while broadening health-care outreach.

University has a deserved reputation as a research and teaching hospital; Maryland General has long served the downtown area. Together, they will form a dynamic team that offers patients a better array of medical options.

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