Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224; 113 S. Ct. 732; 122 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1993)

Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224; 113 S. Ct. 732; 122 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1993)

Facts—Walter L. Nixon Jr., a U.S. federal district judge, was sentenced to prison for making false statements to a jury, but he refused to resign from his position and continued to draw his salary. He was subsequently impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate. The Senate utilized Impeachment Rule XI that allowed a committee to make preliminary findings, which it then submitted to the full Senate before its vote. Nixon challenged the Senate’s authority to use a committee for fact-finding purposes, arguing that the entire Senate had failed its constitutional obligation to “try” all impeachments. Both the U.S. District Court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the issue was nonjusticiable.

Question—Do courts have authority to review procedures used by the U.S. Senate in trying impeachments?

Decision—No, this is a political question committed to the legislative branch.

ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (9–0). The first sentence of Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 gives the Senate the “sole” power to try impeachments. The issue of what the word “try” means in the context of an impeachment trial is a non- justiciable political question, since the trial of impeachments is specifically delegated to the U.S. Senate, and Baker v. Carr (1962) specified that there is a political question when “there is ‘a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department.’” Nixon’s claim that the word “sole” has no substantive meaning must be rejected. It has no less meaning than any other word in the Constitution, and the fact that the Committee of Style added it does not make it meaningless. The fact that the president cannot pardon someone who has been impeached is likewise irrelevant since it does not overturn a conviction but merely mitigates its punishment. There is no evidence that the Framers of the Constitution intended for the judiciary to review impeachment issues. Indeed, “impeachment was designed to be the only check on the Judicial Branch by the Legislature.” Protection against abuse of the Senate’s trial power is provided both by the division of the power of impeachment from that of its trial and by the requirement of a two-thirds supermajority vote. This case is unlike Powell v. McCormack (1969) in that “there is no separate provision of the Constitution that could be defeated by allowing the Senate final authority to determine the meaning of the word ‘try’ in the Impeachment Trial Clause.”

J. Stevens’s concurrence emphasized that “the Framers decided to assign the impeachment power to the Legislative Branch.” J. White’s concurrence argued that the majority decision gave too much discretion to the Senate, and he would not rule out any judicial role in any such decision: “In a truly balanced system, impeachments tried by the Senate would serve as a means of controlling the largely unaccountable Judiciary, even as judicial review would ensure that the Senate adhered to a minimal set of procedural standards in conducting impeachment trials.” White thinks it odd that the judiciary professes to be unable to define the word “try,” and finds that history demonstrates that the Framers were aware that legislators sometimes delegated fact-finding functions in such trials. J. Souter’s concurrence would also leave open the possibility of judicial review in “different and unusual circumstances,” as, for example, if the Senate were to rest the results of such a trial on a coin toss.

NoteC.J. Rehnquist, who had written a book on impeachments called Grand Inquests, later presided over the Senate trial of President Bill Clinton.

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