If It Reaches the Senate, the Chief Justice Is Ready

Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the US Constitution provides: "When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside."

In President Clinton's case, this would mean that William Rehnquist, the 16th chief justice of the United States, would preside over his trial in the Senate if articles of impeachment are passed by the House. If, as many commentators think, the likelihood of the latter is increasing, it might be helpful to know a bit about the person who would supervise the trial (it would be only the second such trial involving the president in history). After all, in a recent survey only 9 percent of those polled even knew who the chief justice was. (Facts about Chief Justice Rehnquist's career appear in the adjoining box.)

To the immediate point, Rehnquist is the author of three books, one of which is on impeachment. No sitting chief justice had ever before published a book, let alone a book about impeachment.

Rehnquist's "Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson" (Morrow, 1993) examines the two most famous American impeachments - those of Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Chase in the early 19th century and of President Andrew Johnson shortly after the Civil War. Rehnquist - who is famous for invoking the "original understanding" of the Founding Fathers when deciding cases that come before him on the high bench - has a deep interest in American history, and "Grand Inquests" is plainly a labor of love.

Rehnquist includes extensive background material to place the two trials in context. He emphasizes events and personalities relevant to the impeachment, which should strike close to home for those following Mr. Clinton's predicament.

Of even greater significance for the present situation, however, are Rehnquist's own thoughts on the impeachment process. Although he does not readily reveal his personal views, his book makes clear that he has a deep appreciation and commanding knowledge of America's past, and an abiding commitment to see that it is not forgotten.

Indeed, Rehnquist's thesis is that the Senate's failure to convict Johnson and Chase did much to strengthen the independence of the presidency and the judiciary within the tripartite structure of the national government. He writes: "Had these two trials resulted in conviction rather than acquittal, the nation would have moved closer to a regime of the sort of congressional supremacy that was dreaded by men such as James Madison, the father of the Constitution."

It is worth noting that, as is the case today, the Senate was controlled in both Chase's and Johnson's day by the opposing political party. Consequently, Rehnquist concludes that their trials stand for the proposition that partisan differences alone are an insufficient predicate for removing a high official from office. From a separation of powers perspective, the chief justice writes, the significance of the Chase and Johnson acquittals "can hardly be overstated."

Of course, it remains to be seen what the outcome of a Clinton impeachment trial would be. One thing is certain: Presiding over the trial will be a chief justice who knows how partisan the impeachment process can be.


*William Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee in 1924, was married for many years to the former Natalie Cornell (she passed away in 1991), and is the father of three grown children. He served in the United States Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1946, and then enrolled at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. Mr. Rehnquist earned three degrees from Stanford, including a law degree (he graduated first in his class), and one degree from Harvard.

He clerked in the early 1950s for Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson. Following his clerkship, Rehnquist entered private law practice in Phoenix, Ariz. He was appointed assistant attorney general, Office of Legal Counsel, by President Nixon in 1969, and then to the Supreme Court two years later. (He was sworn in as an associate justice in January 1972.)

Twelve years ago, Rehnquist was nominated and confirmed - after a contentious Senate hearing - as chief justice. President Reagan chose Rehnquist to replace Warren Burger as chief justice in large part because of Rehnquist's conservative views about the law.

* Scott D. Gerber is the author of the forthcoming 'First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas' (New York University Press, 1998).

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