WASHINGTON — THE United States Supreme Court moved still further to restrain its own power through significant rulings in two cases this week.
Abortion-rights advocates lost a legal weapon against blockades of clinics on Wednesday when the Supreme Court ruled that protesters could not be stopped under an old anti-Ku Klux Klan law. But if the clinics face a new round of confrontations with anti-abortion protesters next week, as they expect, they can still rely on the protection of state laws against trespass and other crimes.
In a less-watched case but one with much more fundamental power questions at stake, the court ruled that it does not have the authority to second-guess Senate impeachment decisions. The case was the impeachment of US District Court Judge Walter Nixon, who was convicted of lying to a grand jury. But the ruling applies to the impeachment of presidents as well.
"This is a very important decision," says Susan Low Bloch, a professor at Georgetown University's law school. It represents the first time in decades that the court has withdrawn from deciding a separation-of-powers issue because it is a political question, she said.
The ruling indicates that on such basic questions as who has the last word on the impeachment of presidents and whether the Constitution has been properly amended, the courts will assume little oversight.
This was what Professor Bloch describes as "a classic case of judicial restraint." Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court's most consistent advocate of this doctrine, wrote the opinion signed by six justices. The other three voted with the majority, but signed different opinions.
Judge Nixon had argued that he did not receive a fair impeachment trial in the Senate.
Even though he had been convicted of two counts of perjury in a criminal trial, evidence against him was heard directly only by a committee of 12 senators. The full Senate relied on transcripts of the testimony in impeaching him.
Seven justices agreed that the Constitution barred them from reviewing the fairness of the trial by investing in the Senate the "sole power to try all impeachments." The other two justices ruled that the court had authority to review the case, but that Nixon had received a fair trial.
The Nixon decision will probably halt the appeal of new US Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) of Florida, a former federal judge who was impeached and removed from the bench. A federal court has ruled that his impeachment was wrongly tried in the Senate.
The Supreme Court also stopped federal courts from keeping open abortion clinics blockaded by Operation Rescue. A clinic in Alexandria, Va., had argued that the blockades violated a Reconstruction-era law aimed at the Ku Klux Klan because anti-abortion demonstrators conspired to deprive women as a class of their rights, including their right of interstate travel, since many of the clinic's patients were from outside Virginia. By a 5-to-4 vote, the justices rejected that argument, overturning a lower-cour t ruling.
Clinics and their users "have lost access to the remedy that has proven most effective in protecting basic rights" - the federal courts, says Deborah Rhode, a Stanford University law professor. State courts have long backlogs and are less sweeping in defining "rights," she says.