Nixon v. United States

Decision Date13 January 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-740,91-740
PartiesWalter L. NIXON, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

After petitioner Nixon, the Chief Judge of a Federal District Court, was convicted of federal crimes and sentenced to prison, the House of Representatives adopted articles of impeachment against him and presented them to the Senate. Following proceedings pursuant to Senate Rule XI—which allows a committee of Senators to hear evidence against an impeached individual and to report that evidence to the full Senate—the Senate voted to convict Nixon, and the presiding officer entered judgment removing him from his judgeship. He then commenced the present suit for a declaratory judgment and reinstatement of his judicial salary and privileges, arguing that, because Senate Rule XI prohibits the whole Senate from taking part in the evidentiary hearings, it violates the first sentence of the Constitution's Impeachment Trial Clause, Art. I, § 3, cl. 6, which provides that the "Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments." The District Court held that his claim was nonjusticiable, i.e., involved a political question that could not be resolved by the courts. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Nixon's claim that Senate Rule XI violates the Impeachment Trial Clause is nonjusticiable. Pp. ____.

(a) A controversy is nonjusticiable 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 . . . ." Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217, 82 S.Ct. 691, 710, 7 L.Ed.2d 663. These two concepts are not completely separate; the lack of judicially manageable standards may strengthen the conclusion that there is a textually demonstrable commitment to a coordinate branch. Pp. ____.

(b) The language and structure of Art. I, § 3, cl. 6, demonstrate a textual commitment of impeachment to the Senate. Nixon's argument that the use of the word "try" in the Clause's first sentence impliedly requires a judicial-style trial by the full Senate that is subject to judicial review is rejected. The conclusion that "try" lacks sufficient precision to afford any judicially manageable standard of review is compelled by older and modern dictionary definitions, and is fortified by the existence of the three very specific requirements that the Clause's second and third sentences do impose—that the Senate's members must be under oath or affirmation, that a two-thirds vote is required to convict, and that the Chief Justice presides when the President is tried—the precise nature of which suggests that the Framers did not intend to impose additional limitations on the form of the Senate proceedings. The Clause's first sentence must instead be read as a grant of authority to the Senate to determine whether an individual should be acquitted or convicted, and the common sense and dictionary meanings of the word "sole" indicate that this authority is reposed in the Senate alone. Nixon's attempts to negate the significance of "sole" are unavailing, while his alternative reading of the word as requiring impeachment only by the full Senate is unnatural and would impose on the Senate additional procedural requirements that would be inconsistent with the three express limitations that the Clause sets out. A review of the Constitutional Convention's history and the contemporary commentary supports a reading of the constitutional language as deliberately placing the impeachment power in the Legislature, with no judicial involvement, even for the limited purpose of judicial review. Pp. ____.

(c) Justiciability is also refuted by (1) the lack of finality inherent in exposing the country's political life particularly if the President were impeached—to months, or perhaps years, of chaos during judicial review of Senate impeachment proceedings, or during any retrial that a differently constituted Senate might conduct if its first judgment of conviction were invalidated, and by (2) the difficulty of fashioning judicial relief other than simply setting aside the Senate's judgment of conviction. See Baker, supra, 369 U.S., at 210, 82 S.Ct., at 706. Pp. ____.

(d) A holding of nonjusticiability is consistent with this Court's opinion in Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 89 S.Ct. 1944, 23 L.Ed.2d 491. Unlike the situation in that case, there is no separate constitutional provision which could be defeated by allowing the Senate final authority to determine the meaning of the word "try" in Art. I, § 3, cl. 6. While courts possess power to review legislative action that transgresses identifiable textual limits, the word "try" does not provide such a limit on the authority committed to the Senate. Pp. ____.

290 U.S.App.D.C. 420, 938 F.2d 239, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined. SOUTER, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

David O. Stewart, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Solicitor Gen. Kenneth W. Starr, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Walter L. Nixon, Jr., asks this court to decide whether Senate Rule XI, which allows a committee of Senators to hear evidence against an individual who has been impeached and to report that evidence to the full Senate, violates the Impeachment Trial Clause, Art. I, § 3, cl. 6. That Clause provides that the "Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments." But before we reach the merits of such a claim, we must decide whether it is "justiciable," that is, whether it is a claim that may be resolved by the courts. We conclude that it is not.

Nixon, a former Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, was convicted by a jury of two counts of making false statements before a federal grand jury and sentenced to prison. See United States v. Nixon, 816 F.2d 1022 (CA5 1987). The grand jury investigation stemmed from reports that Nixon had accepted a gratuity from a Mississippi businessman in exchange for asking a local district attorney to halt the prosecution of the businessman's son. Because Nixon refused to resign from his office as a United States District Judge, he continued to collect his judicial salary while serving out his prison sentence. See H.R.Rep. No. 101-36, p. 13 (1989).

On May 10, 1989, the House of Representatives adopted three articles of impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors. The first two articles charged Nixon with giving false testimony before the grand jury and the third article charged him with bringing disrepute on the Federal Judiciary. See 135 Cong.Rec. H1811.

After the House presented the articles to the Senate, the Senate voted to invoke its own Impeachment Rule XI, under which the presiding officer appoints a committee of Senators to "receive evidence and take testimony." Senate Impeachment Rule XI, reprinted in Senate Manual, S. Doc. No. 101-1, 101st Cong., 1st Sess., 186 (1989).1 The Senate committee held four days of hearings, during which 10 witnesses, including Nixon, testified. S.Rep. No. 101-164, p. 4 (1989). Pursuant to Rule XI, the committee presented the full Senate with a complete transcript of the proceeding and a report stating the uncontested facts and summarizing the evidence on the contested facts. See id., at 3-4. Nixon and the House impeachment managers submitted extensive final briefs to the full Senate and delivered arguments from the Senate floor during the three hours set aside for oral argument in front of that body. Nixon himself gave a personal appeal, and several Senators posed questions directly to both parties. 135 Cong.Rec. S14493-14517 (Nov. 1, 1989). The Senate voted by more than the constitutionally required two-thirds majority to convict Nixon on the first two articles. Id., at S14635 (Nov. 3, 1989). The presiding officer then entered judgment removing Nixon from his office as United States District Judge.

Nixon thereafter commenced the present suit, arguing that Senate Rule XI violates the constitutional grant of authority to the Senate to "try" all impeachments because it prohibits the whole Senate from taking part in the evidentiary hearings. See Art. I, § 3, cl. 6. Nixon sought a declaratory judgment that his impeachment conviction was void and that his judicial salary and privileges should be reinstated. The District Court held that his claim was nonjusticiable, 744 F.Supp. 9 (D.C.1990), and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed. 290 U.S.App.D.C. 420, 938 F.2d 239 (1991).

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. . . ." Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217, 82 S.Ct. 691, 710, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962). But the courts must, in the first instance, interpret the text in question and determine whether and to what extent the issue is textually committed. See ibid.; Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 519, 89 S.Ct. 1944, 1962-1963, 23 L.Ed.2d 491 (1969). As the discussion that follows makes clear, the concept of a textual commitment to a coordinate political department is not completely separate from the concept of a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; the lack of judicially manageable standards may strengthen the conclusion that there is a textually demonstrable commitment to a coordinate branch.

In this case, we must examine Art. I, § 3, cl. 6, to determine the scope of authority conferred upon the Senate by the Framers regarding...

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