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Jurist would be 'at home' in Senate trial

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Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, says Rehnquist can set the "tone" and "scope" of the trial with decisions such as whether to accept grand jury testimony as sufficient evidence. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, relied exclusively on 60,000 pages of testimony and documents and never called a single witness. That, says Mr. Tiefer, will not fly with Rehnquist.

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And then there's the question of witness credibility. Tiefer can imagine a scenario in which Democrats present a "he-said, she-said" case, and Rehnquist has to decide how many of Monica Lewinsky's confidants need to be brought to the Senate to testify to the accuracy of her version.

Meanwhile, if the White House again sends in their defense team on another mission to discredit independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation, Rehnquist may have to decide how much evidence of prosecutorial abuse to allow in the trial.

Even though the senators can overrule the chief justice, his stature - as well as the ever-watchful eye of the nation's television cameras - will discourage them from this, says Tiefer, who has also written a 1,000-page tome on congressional practice and procedure.

"Woe to the Senate majority leader who visibly tries to reverse Rehnquist's fair, judicial approach and railroad through the removal of a president," he says.

Any pattern of overruling by the majority Republicans, says Tiefer, would be spotted immediately by "the watching press and public, aided by commentary from 45 or so enraged minority senators" and they would "raise a fierce alarm."

In fact, say those who know or have studied Rehnquist, the chief justice will brook no shenanigans from senators, and will work to keep long-windedness from blowing through the Senate chamber.

Running a tight ship

In his own courtroom, the no-nonsense Rehnquist is famous for his efficiency. He keeps lawyers strictly to their time limits, cutting them off when they run over. His booming voice and firmness have been known to frighten spectators, whom he admonishes if they get too noisy. A very private individual, the chief justice allows no television cameras in the courtroom.

Though a conservative, Rehnquist is believed by both sides of the court to be fair and evenhanded.

At his most visible moment in his career, Rehnquist will know that "the credibility of the court is at stake," and will not be swayed by whatever personal feelings he might have on the case, says Viet Dinh, a law professor at Georgetown University here.

Business as usual?

Just how a trial would affect the business of the Supreme Court is not yet clear.

The court is scheduled to hear 23 cases in January, February, and March - a fairly light load. Justice Sandra O'Connor has suggested Rehnquist could join other Supreme Court justices to hear cases in the morning, and then preside in the Senate in the afternoon. Other options would be to delay the court's schedule, extending it into the summer, or to have Justice John Paul Stevens act as chief justice in Rehnquist's absence.