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Nixon v. United States

Another Nixon, A Different Impeachment

Usually when the name "Nixon" is used in the context of impeachment, people think of President Richard M. Nixon, against whom the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings for his role in the coverup of the Watergate scandal. President Nixon was never impeached, however, because he chose to resign his office. The Nixon in Nixon v. United States was Walter Nixon, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Mississippi. Following reports that Nixon had accepted a bribe from a businessman in exchange for intervening on behalf of the businessman's son, who was under by prosecution by a local district attorney, a grand jury conducted an investigation of his activities. He was convicted on two counts of making false statements before a grand jury, and sentenced to prison. Unlike his namesake, Nixon never resigned, and therefore he continued to collect his judicial salary while in prison.

On 10 May 1989, the House of Representatives adopted three articles of impeachment against Nixon for high crimes and misdemeanors. The first two of these charged him with giving false testimony before the grand jury, the third with bringing disrepute on the federal judiciary. The House duly presented the articles to the Senate, which voted to invoke its own impeachment rule. Under Senate Rule XI, a presiding officer appoints a committee of senators to "receive evidence and take testimony;" upon appointment, the committee held four days of hearings during which ten witnesses, including Nixon himself, testified. The committee then presented to the full Senate a complete transcript of its proceedings, along with a report summarizing the evidence it had gathered. Nixon, along with the House impeachment manager, presented a brief to the Senate, and together the two sides argued on the Senate floor for the full three hours allotted for that purpose. Nixon gave a personal appeal, then he, as well as the House impeachment manager, answered questions from senators. By a vote greater than the two-thirds majority required, the Senate elected to convict Nixon on the first two articles. The presiding officer then entered a judgment ordering the impeached judge to step down from his office.

Nixon filed suit in district court, seeking a declaratory judgment and the reinstatement of his salary on the grounds that Senate Rule XI violated Article I, section 3, clause 6 of the Constitution. The latter grants the Senate authority to "try"--the word would become significant--all impeachments, and Nixon held that because the evidentiary hearings did not take place before the full Senate, the impeachment proceedings were not a trial per se. The district court, however, held that his claim was nonjusticiable: because it involved the power expressly given to the Senate to "try any impeachments," it was out of the court's hands. When Nixon took the case to the Supreme Court, the Washington Legal Foundation filed an amici curiae brief urging affirmance, and the advocacy group Public Citizen filed one urging reversal. The chief lawyer for the United States was Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, whose name would soon become a household word when he was appointed independent counsel in investigations involving President Bill Clinton.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Nixon v. United States - Significance, Another Nixon, A Different Impeachment, Simple Words: "try" And "sole"