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Nixon v. United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nixon v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 14, 1992
Decided January 13, 1993
Full case nameWalter L. Nixon, Petitioner v. United States, et al.
Citations506 U.S. 224 (more)
113 S. Ct. 732; 122 L. Ed. 2d 1; 1993 U.S. LEXIS 834; 61 U.S.L.W. 4069; 93 Cal. Daily Op. Service 279; 93 Daily Journal DAR 574; 6 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 821
ArgumentOral argument
Prior history744 F.Supp. 9 (D.D.C. 1990), aff'd, 938 F.2d 239 (D.C. Cir. 1991), cert. granted, 502 U.S. 1090 (1992)
Subsequent historyNone
The contention that Senate committees appointed to gather evidence in an impeachment trial are unconstitutional is nonjusticiable, because impeachment is a political question.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
Byron White · Harry Blackmun
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Case opinions
MajorityRehnquist, joined by Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
ConcurrenceWhite (in judgment), joined by Blackmun
ConcurrenceSouter (in judgment)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Art. I, Section 3, Clause 6

Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993),[1] was a United States Supreme Court decision that determined that the question of whether the Senate had properly tried an impeachment was a political question and could not be resolved in the courts.

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  • United States v. Nixon


- [Narrator] The last time federal judge Walter Nixon stood inside a courtroom, it was not to preside over a trial, but to stand trial himself. Nixon was accused of attempting to sway authorities to drop marijuana smuggling charges against the son of Nixon's longtime friend. In exchange for getting the charges dropped, Nixon was allegedly promised oil and gas royalties from his friend's business. Nixon was convicted of perjury for lying to the grand jury. Declaring his innocence from behind bars, Nixon refused to give up his judicial commission. As a result, the House of Representatives was forced to begin impeachment proceedings against him. The impeachment power in the Constitution is divided between the House and the Senate. The House acts as the prosecutor, and the Senate acts as the jury. In Nixon's case, the House presented three articles of impeachment to the Senate. The Senate then heard evidence against Nixon and convicted him. Nixon was unhappy with how his impeachment trial went. In an ordinary trial, the jury hears all of the evidence firsthand. But the senators, pressed for time, instead appointed a committee to hear the evidence. That committee then presented the full Senate with a complete transcript of the hearing, along with a report summarizing the evidence. Based on that report, the full Senate voted to convict. After his impeachment, Nixon sued the United States, arguing that the Senate violated Article I, Section III, Clause VI of the Constitution, also known as the Impeachment Trial Clause. Nixon objected to the Senate's appointment of a committee to conduct the evidentiary hearing, arguing that the Impeachment Trial Clause required the entire Senate to hear the evidence firsthand. The District Court held that Nixon's claim presented a non-justiciable political question, and dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals agreed. The question for the United States Supreme Court was whether reviewing the Senate's impeachment proceedings presented a non-justiciable political question. The Court held that review of impeachment proceedings is a non-justiciable political question. This is because the impeachment power is constitutionally reserved to the political branches of government. Additionally, the Court found no judicially manageable standards for resolving the dispute. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court, determined that the word "sole" in the Impeachment Trial Clause gives the Senate complete discretion to conduct impeachment proceedings. This includes the authority to make the rules that govern impeachment procedure. The court also determined that the word try in the impeachment trial clause is not precise enough for judicial application. The word is not defined in the Constitution, and contemporary dictionaries indicate that it could mean anything from a judicial trial to a simple investigation. As a result, the Court concluded that there were no judicially manageable standards for determining how the Senate must conduct an impeachment. The Court affirmed the court of appeals, and ordered Nixon's claim to be dismissed. Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion, arguing that the Framers deliberately gave complete impeachment power to the legislative branch. Therefore, any interference from the judiciary would be inappropriate. Justice White concurred in judgment, but disagreed with the majority that the case presented a non-justiciable question. White argued that the word "sole" in the Impeachment Trial Clause doesn't mean that the Senate is the exclusive authority on impeachment. Rather, White resented that the Framers used the term to emphasize the distinct authority of the House to prosecute impeachments, and the distinct authority of the Senate to try impeachments. In addition, White argued that the word "try" isn't ambiguous. Judges, who are experts at trying cases, are well-situated to come up with standards to determine whether Nixon had been properly tried. Although White disagreed with the majority on the political question issue, he agreed with the ultimate outcome, because Nixon's impeachment trial was constitutionally proper. Justice Souter also concurred in judgment. Souter argued that the judiciary should be allowed to review the Senate's impeachment determination in extreme cases. Souter thought judicial oversight would be needed if the Senate grossly abused its discretion. For example, the Senate might try deciding the outcome with a coin toss. In that situation, the judiciary would need to intervene. Nixon versus United States further developed the political question doctrine by emphasizing the importance of textual analysis.



The Chief Judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Walter Nixon, was convicted of committing perjury before a grand jury but refused to resign from office even after he had been incarcerated. Nixon was subsequently impeached by the US House of Representatives, and the matter was referred to the Senate for a vote on Nixon's removal. The Senate appointed a committee to hear the evidence against Nixon and later report to the body as a whole. The Senate then heard the report of the committee and voted to remove Nixon from office. Nixon contended that this did not meet the constitutional requirement of Article I for the case to be "tried by the Senate."


The court's decision was unanimous, but four separate opinions were published. The majority opinion, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that the courts may not review the impeachment and trial of a federal officer because the Constitution reserves that function to a coordinate political branch. Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution gives the Senate the "sole power to try all impeachments." Because of the word sole it is clear that the judicial branch was not to be included. Furthermore, because the word try was originally understood to include factfinding committees, there was a textually demonstrable commitment to give broad discretion to the Senate in impeachments.

Furthermore the Framers believed that representatives of the people should try impeachments, and the Court was too small to justly try impeachments. Also, the judicial branch is "checked" by impeachments, so judicial involvement in impeachments might violate the doctrine of the separation of powers.

The Court further ruled that involving the judiciary would prevent finality without clear remedy and bias post-impeachment criminal or civil prosecutions, which the Constitution explicitly allows.

Justices Byron White, Harry Blackmun, and David Souter concurred, but voiced concern that the Court was foreclosing the area for review. While they found that the Senate had done all that was constitutionally required, they were concerned that the Court should have the power to review cases in which the Senate removed an impeached officer summarily without a hearing, or through some arbitrary process such as "a coin toss."

An important feature of this case is how it diverges from Powell v. McCormack (1969). In Powell, a grant of discretionary power to Congress was deemed to be justiciable because it required a mere "interpretation" of the Constitution.

See also


  1. ^ 506 U.S. 224 (1993)

External links

This page was last edited on 21 November 2018, at 18:11
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