Rehnquist presides over Clinton trial in unusually mild manner

Supreme Court chief stays above politics of question-answer session

January 23, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, presiding over the first openly partisan session of the impeachment trial, kept himself out of the politics yesterday and ran the Senate with an unusually gentle hand.

In the Supreme Court, he is unchallengeably in charge and maintains firm control over the tightly scripted proceedings, occasionally employing a scowling, impatient discipline. In the Senate, he has adopted a style that lawyers who are regulars before the court would not recognize, intervening rarely, and then only minimally.

With Republicans outwardly helping House prosecutors, with Democrats doing the same for the president's defense lawyers, with loaded and leading questions coming from both sides, with prepared-in-advance exchanges abounding, the nation's most powerful judge kept almost completely out of the way.

It was unlike anything Rehnquist has observed as a judge. Those close to him said he knew it would come to partisanship sooner or later. Yesterday, he gave no signs that he was surprised or upset by the partisan needling, the unsubtle questions to bolster or undercut one side or the other.

At no point did the session grow as unpleasant as the Senate trial of President Andrew Johnson occasionally did in 1868. Throughout, Rehnquist had no real need to keep order, because the participants minded their parliamentary manners. Rehnquist was not only easygoing, he was hesitant.

He overruled only a single objection -- a complaint by Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, that Republican prosecutor Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas had not answered "yes" or "no," as Dodd's written question had demanded.

Said Rehnquist of himself: "The chair has not tried to police the responsiveness of the answers to the questions, so I'm going to overrule that objection."

From the beginning, Rehnquist has interpreted his role as that of a presiding officer rather than a manager. He defers completely to Majority Leader Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, to keep the proceedings moving, and to begin and end each session. Yesterday was Rehnquist's first chance to exercise the undoubted powers of the chair, but he seldom did.

He clearly has grown accustomed to the Senate's habit of staying efficient by operating with unanimous consent. When he wanted to relax the rules and let both sides -- prosecutors and defenders -- answer, he used that method in getting permission from the Senate.

Not once did the chief justice refuse to ask any question submitted to him, so there was no test of his authority to make such a refusal. He can be overruled by a simple-majority vote.

Though he has spent weeks studying the Senate's impeachment rules, he was unsure of himself when the first parliamentary inquiry arose about who could object to questions. He let the parliamentarian supply the answer: No one can object to questions, only to answers.

Rehnquist, though largely detached from the maneuvering, remained focused on the fairly tidy process of submitting and answering questions. At one point, however, he could be seen on television twirling a paper on the end of a pencil.

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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