Judicial Review of Impeachments

Judicial Review of Impeachments

It was long assumed that no judicial review of the impeachment process was possible, that impeachment presents a true “political question” case, i.e., that the Constitution’s conferral on the Senate of the “sole” power to try impeachments is a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of trial procedures to the Senate to decide without court review. That assumption was not contested until very recently, when Judges Nixon and Hastings challenged their Senate convictions.824

In the Judge Nixon case, the Court held that a claim to judicial review of an issue arising in an impeachment trial in the Senate presents a nonjusticiable “political question.”825 Specifically, the Court rejected a claim that the Senate had departed from the meaning of the word “try” in the impeachment clause by relying on a special committee to take evidence, including testimony. But the Court’s “political question” analysis has broader application, and appears to place the whole impeachment process off limits to judicial review.826

824 Both judges challenged the use under Rule XI of a trial committee to hear the evidence and report to the full Senate, which would then carry out the trial. The rule was adopted in the aftermath of an embarrassingly sparse attendance at the trial of Judge Louderback in 1935. National Comm. Report, supra at 50-53, 54-57; Grimes, supra at 1233-37. In the Nixon case, the lower courts held the issue to be non-justiciable (Nixon v. United States, 744 F. Supp. 9 (D.D.C. 1990), aff’d 938 F.2d 239 (D.C. Cir. 1991), but a year later a district court initially ruled in Judge Hastings’ favor. Hastings v. United States, 802 F. Supp. 490 (D.D.C. 1992), vacated 988 F.2d 1280 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

825 Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993). Nixon at the time of his conviction and removal from office was a federal district judge in Mississippi.

826 The Court listed “reasons why the Judiciary, and the Supreme Court in particular, were not chosen to have any role in impeachments,” and elsewhere agreed with the appeals court that “opening the door of judicial review to the procedures used by the Senate in trying impeachments would expose the political life of the country to months, or perhaps years, of chaos.” 506 U.S. at 234, 236.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014