Trial fails to clarify key issues

Senate standard of guilt could have 100 definitions

Aftermath Of Impeachment

February 14, 1999

WASHINGTON -- When Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist closed his red notebook for the last time Friday, proclaiming, "Our work as a court of impeachment is now done," he committed to history the judgment of whether the Constitution's meaning had undergone any change in the process. Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston explores some of the constitutional questions raised by the nation's second presidential impeachment and trial.

Is it clear now how serious presidential conduct must be in order to justify conviction and removal from office?

Clearer, but still not free from doubt. At no point did the Senate as a whole have to face a specific choice on how to define "high crimes and misdemeanors." As a result, the standard of impeachable offenses had to be what individual senators thought it should be. The Democrats, some of whose votes were necessary for conviction, clearly adopted a rigorous standard: The misconduct had to threaten or carry out actual harm to the government itself.

Not one of them found evidence of that. For them, it was not enough even if President Clinton had lied in Paula Corbin Jones' civil case and obstructed justice in the criminal grand jury's investigation. For many Republicans, that would have been enough, but they could not get the necessary 67 votes to convict without Democrats going along with their standard.

Does the outcome mean that a future president has a kind of constitutional immunity for lying under oath or obstructing justice?

Absolutely not. The verdict in Clinton's favor has to be taken as a single constitutional incident, in its own time and context. Nothing about the acquittal provides any constitutional cover for future presidential misconduct -- even of the same kind. Clinton's travails over these very charges might well serve as a deterrent, at least for a president faced with temptation who has any sense of history.

Was Clinton found not guilty because House prosecutors failed to prove him guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- the standard used in regular criminal trials?

No. The Senate never defined the standard of guilt it would use, so that, too, was left to individual senators. While some said they were using that standard, it is not clear that Clinton would have been convicted -- especially with Democratic votes -- even under a less demanding standard, such as proof by "clear and convincing evidence."

Well, were the two articles of impeachment doomed from the beginning?

Probably. The House votes to impeach -- 228-206 on the perjury article, 221-212 on the obstruction of justice article -- and Democrats' near-solidarity on both of those votes foreshadowed major difficulty in the Senate, no matter how gifted the House prosecutors, no matter whether their presentation of the case was flawless, and no matter how talented Clinton's defense lawyers were.

Does that mean, then, that the constitutional requirement for impeachment is that it must have genuine bipartisan support, and lots of it?

That is not a constitutional requirement: The Constitution's impeachment language says nothing at all about the role of parties in the process; parties as we know them didn't exist in 1787. But that is simply a political reality, one that chief House prosecutor Henry J. Hyde frankly noted from the very beginning. The requirement of a two-thirds majority to convict in the Senate -- a constitutional minimum -- strongly reinforces the political need for bipartisan support, however.

Did House prosecutors have any chance of winning Democratic votes?

Probably not, given the evidence they had to work with. At most, it was evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice, not actual or threatened harm to the government.

Many of the House prosecutors, and some Republican senators, have complained that the Senate doomed their efforts by limiting the evidence they could gather or present. Does that mean the House was unconstitutionally denied a fair trial?

No. The Constitution does not dictate the Senate's impeachment trial processes. In fact, the Supreme Court has said those processes are entirely within the Senate's discretion.

Was Clinton acquitted because his actions were related to private sexual activity, rather than governmental activity, so that the Constitution now means impeachment only applies to government acts?

No. A president who committed a private crime, like murder, could hardly expect to avoid impeachment. But it probably is true that impeachment in the future will be unlikely -- or at least very difficult -- for purely private sexual misconduct with no government action implicated.

There was much talk during the Senate trial about the House case being weak because so much of it grew out of the Jones case, which was dismissed and then settled out of court. Does that mean a president has constitutional immunity to impeachment even for serious misconduct in a civil case that did not succeed?

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