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Nixon v. United States

Simple Words: "try" And "sole"

The Supreme Court voted to affirm. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for a unanimous Court, cited the Court's statement in Baker v. Carr (1962) that a controversy was nonjusticiable in any situation where there was "a textually demonstrated constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it . . . " This meant that if the Constitution had already given another department, in this case the Senate, the power to decide a case, or if the Court lacked any power to make a ruling, then a case was nonjusticiable. These two ideas could not be entirely separated, of course, as the chief justice pointed out: if there were no "judicially . . . manageable standards" for deciding a question, that usually indicated that it was already committed by the Constitution to another "political department."

The Impeachment Trial Clause in Article I, section 3 of the Constitution embodied in its language a "textual commitment" of impeachment proceedings to the Senate, Rehnquist held. The Court rejected Nixon's claim that the word "try" referred to a "judicial-style trial by the full Senate:" the word was not sufficiently precise, either as it was understood at the time the Constitution was written or in the present day, to make such a determination. What could be determined, however, was that the clause went on to provide "three very specific requirements" for impeachment proceedings: Senators had to be under oath, convictions had to be by a vote of two-thirds or greater, and in a case where the president himself was under trial, the chief justice would preside. As for the word "sole" in the provision "the Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments," this too had a common-sense meaning--"that this authority is reposed in the Senate alone." Nixon had tried to construe "sole" to mean that the full Senate had to conduct the entire impeachment, including the testimony and evidence-gathering; this reading, however, would "impose on the Senate additional procedural requirements that would be inconsistent with the three express limitations that the Clause sets out." If there was any further doubt as to whether the judicial branch had power to intervene in these proceedings, a review of the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent applications of the clause would dispel it.

Justice Rehnquist offered two other reasons why the case was nonjusticiable. First of all, if the Court had to review Senate impeachment proceedings, this would result in "exposing the country's political life--particularly if the President were impeached--to months, perhaps years, of chaos during judicial review of Senate impeachment proceedings." A second reason was that if the Court did find fault with some aspect of the Senate proceedings, it would face a "difficulty of fashioning judicial relief" other from simply dismissing the judgement of conviction.

Finally, the Court's holding of nonjusticiability was consistent with its ruling in Powell v. McCormack (1969). Unlike in Powell, if the Court allowed the Senate full authority to interpret the word "try," this would not result in any unintended violation of some other constitutional provision. Courts could review legislative action that "transgresses identifiable textual limits"--the Supreme Court itself does so all the time--but that simple three-letter word "try" did not give the judicial branch power to place limits on the Senate's authority in this instance.

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"