Rehnquist issues 1st ruling: `Senate is not simply a jury'

Chief justice's decision may expand options open to senators during trial

January 16, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It took Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist just seconds yesterday to make his first ruling in the Senate impeachment trial, but it might mark a turning point that some senators may want to erase.

Rehnquist upheld the challenge made by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, that House managers were wrong to refer to the Senate as "jurors."

"The chair is of the view," the chief justice said, "that the senator from Iowa's objection is well-taken, that the Senate is not simply a jury, it is a court in this case."

Although it may have sounded like a fine semantic distinction, the decision potentially carries enormous weight: It could mean that the Senate is free to decide that the House was right, that Clinton did everything he is accused of doing, and yet will have no duty to convict him and throw him out of office.

That runs counter to a constitutional view that many, perhaps most, of the Republican House prosecutors are believed to hold: that if the Senate agrees with the House's evidence, that by itself dictates a conviction. Conservative analysts outside of Congress have been pushing that view, saying it would be "jury nullification" if the Senate accepted the House's facts and opted not to convict.

`Put us in a box'

Harkin said after the session that he had begun to worry that House prosecutors were seeking "to put parameters on what we could do in the Senate, that all we could do was to take the facts and decide. They were trying to put us in a box so that we could only decide very narrow things."

The chief justice's ruling, the Iowan added, "really means that we can be expansive."

As a result, it may be that some senators will seek to reopen the question. Several Republican senators gathered around Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, apparently to ponder the issue, when the Senate recessed moments after Rehnquist's ruling. A challenge could come today or next week when the Senate is in session as a court of impeachment.

Under Senate rules, Rehnquist's decision could be challenged by any senator, which would then put the matter to the full Senate, to be decided on a single vote tally, without debate.

Return to partisan rift?

That could return the Senate close to where it was before the trial opened, when a deep partisan rift emerged over the very issue of the Senate's exact role. Senate leaders had floated a proposal to have the Senate accept the House's facts as true, and then cast a quick vote on whether that justified impeachment and a full trial.

When that proposal was sharply challenged by House prosecutors and by conservative senators, who argued that it would short-circuit a trial and demean the House's role, Senate leaders were forced to work out a bipartisan compromise that essentially postponed that fight until later in the proceedings.

The Rehnquist decision could provide a test that reopens the question of how much discretion the Senate wants to claim for itself as it reacts to the House's accusations.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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