Constitutional Law I, Pages 114–120

Nixon v. United States

1993

Facts:

Nixon was a former Chief of the Southern District of Mississippi (this is not the president), but was convicted of two counts of making false statements before a federal grand jury and sentenced to prison. He refused to resign his officer however and continued to collect his judicial salary was imprisoned.

The Senate impeached him and, under its own Impeachment Rule XI, appointed a committee of senators to "receive evidence and take testimony." They did so and presented the Senate with a full transcript. Both sides presented the Senate with extensive briefs, delivered arguments to it, and answered its questions asked directly of the parties. The Senate then voted by more than the constitutionally required two-third majority to convict Nixon, and judgment was granted removing him from office.

Defendant sued, claiming that the constitutional basis, Article I, § 3, clause 6, required the Senate as a whole to "try" cases and that allowing only part of it to take part in evidentiary hearings violated this requirement.

Procedural History:

  • The district court held that Nixon's claim was nonjusticiable because it was a political question.

  • The court of appeals affirmed.

Issue:

Is whether or not the Senate can use committees in impeachment evidentiary hearings a political question?

Rule:

LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 115, Paragraph 3

A controversy is nonjusticiable—i. e., involves a political question—where there is "a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it"

Reasoning:

Section 3's use of the word "try" cannot be interpreted as any type of limitation upon the Senate. It lacks the sort of precision that would be required for a judicial standard of review, unlike elsewhere in the Constitution where it does impose precise limitation upon the Senate's impeachment powers. If the Founders intended to place further restrictions, they would have just said them instead of trying to imply them through the word "try".

The Constitution says that the Senate has the "sole" power over impeachments. This was subject to much debate and excludes the courts from having power thereover. Allowing the courts to intervene would remove this established check on its power and remove the finality from impeachment convictions, creating further problems as to what a reversal would actually do.

Holding:

Yes, this is a political question that is nonjusticiable. Affirmed.

Concurring Opinions:

  • Stevens: Impeachment power was assigned to the Legislative branch.

  • White: The Senate's impeachment proceeding should be reviewable in some cases, but it has wide discretion which it fell under in this case. However, the use of "sole" was not intended to guard against the courts but against the House. The Founders were actually quite concerned about any branch having the power of impeachment and would have welcomed the courts to have a check over it.

    The word "try" has a simple, but broad meaning. It just requires the Senate to try a case like a court would. Like, they cannot simply enter a guilty verdict automatically.

  • Souter: Application of the political question doctrine ultimately turns on "how importunately the occasion demands an answer." This occasion does not demand an answer however, as it seems fair that the Senate can determine subsidiary issues like its receipt and consideration of evidence. However, there could be some cases which would justify a more searching review like determining guilt automatically or with a coin flip.

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