Chief justice gained insights from trial

Rehnquist takes away keener appreciation of how Congress operates

The Impeachment Verdict

February 13, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist went back across the street yesterday to his day job at the Supreme Court. Along with a plaque and the memory of a standing ovation from an appreciative Senate, Rehnquist took with him fresh insights into the way Congress works.

The final six minutes of the five weeks that Rehnquist spent in the Senate chamber presiding over Clinton's impeachment trial, were, in fact, the chief justice's moment, unlike anything a judge would experience at the end of a normal court trial.

First, he read a brief prepared statement, talking of the transformation he had gone through since early January. Then he got a commendation from Majority Leader Trent Lott, who said, "Y'all come back soon"; received the "Golden Gavel" plaque for presiding, and a sturdy round of applause from all 100 Senators, counsel for both sides and their aides.

In his statement, Rehnquist acknowledged how strange the experience was to him. He spoke of his "culture shock" in leading the Senate, with its "more free-form environment," but said, "I leave you now a wiser, but not a sadder man."

What he meant, clearly, was that he has a keener appreciation of the sometimes strange ways of Congress.

The gruffness that seems to come naturally to him when he is presiding over the court was absent from the impeachment trial, though his patience sometimes was evidently taxed by the Senate's difficulty in starting on time.

The proceedings had held his interest -- most of the time. At some of the duller points, he read legal briefs in cases coming up at the court. He was always available to rule, though.

He had no trouble, for example, seeing through the partisan gamesmanship yesterday of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who preferred to vote "not proved." Rehnquist simply counted him as a "not guilty" vote.

Generally, the chief justice had allowed himself only the role of a passive presiding officer, relying very heavily on guidance from Senate parliamentarian Robert B. Dove. But he translated Dove's strict by-the-book approach into more forgiving rulings -- at one point laughingly telling the voluble Senate: "The parliamentarian says that all of this is out of order."

Week by week, the chief justice grew increasingly comfortable with the peculiar culture of the Senate: the mix of outright partisanship and notable statesmanship, confrontation and accommodation, making and unmaking majorities, and getting something done despite all of that, frequently by unanimous consent.

Among the nine justices, only two -- Stephen G. Breyer and Sandra Day O'Connor -- have had any significant experience in the legislative arena. That was years ago, when Breyer was a Senate staff member, and O'Connor a member of the Arizona Legislature. Now, Rehnquist can update them and the other justices. Congress and state legislatures, thus, might benefit if, as expected, Rehnquist's first-hand experience helps promote some sensitivity at the court to legislative compromises that are often untidy, inconsistent, vague or even foolish.

If more tolerance results, it could help, for example, when the court reviews a new round of congressional and state legislative redistricting -- saturated in politics -- after next year's census.

But legislators cannot expect a completely harmonious relationship with the court. Some contentious issues remain between the two branches. For instance, the court has grown increasingly hostile to Congress' use of its national powers to force states to carry out federal programs. That is not likely to change.

Also, Rehnquist is not likely to abandon his complaint that Congress is passing too many laws to federalize crime and law enforcement -- thereby loading more business onto the federal courts. And he is unlikely to grow more tolerant of delays by the Republican Senate in acting on President Clinton's judicial nominees; the courts need help, the chief justice strongly believes.

Neither he nor his colleagues are expected to relax their anger over Republican lawmakers' suggestions that liberal federal judges should be disciplined or impeached for their rulings.

View of executive branch

The court's relationship with the other branch -- the executive -- might not be affected at all by the trial and acquittal of President Clinton. In fact, the chief justice probably gained little additional insight into how the executive branch operates, because the White House role in the impeachment trial was unlike anything that regularly happens in that branch's internal operations.

Rehnquist studiously avoided giving any hint of his feelings about the charges against Clinton, and in his statement of appreciation yesterday he conspicuously left out any comment about the quality of the performances of the House prosecutors and the president's defense lawyers.

The chief justice and his eight colleagues on the court are aware of their contributions to Clinton's legal woes as they built toward impeachment: the unanimous decision that let the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit go forward (serving as the source of the accusations in both articles of impeachment), and actions enabling independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to probe Clinton's actions more deeply.

Although the chief justice said "Amen" yesterday when the Senate chaplain asked a blessing on the president, he did the same after every prayer during the trial. And neither Rehnquist nor any of his colleagues is known to have any regrets about their actions affecting Clinton's fate.

If Starr moves ahead with a criminal prosecution of Clinton, the justices might have another constitutional bout to referee, over Starr's authority to take that step.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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