Nixon v. United States 506 U.S. 224 (1993)

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NIXON v. UNITED STATES 506 U.S. 224 (1993)

In Nixon v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a challenge to the U.S. senate's practice of permitting a committee to hear evidence against an impeached judge presented a nonjusticiable political question. The petitioner Walter Nixon, a federal judge, had made false statements to a federal grand jury that was investigating him for bribery. He argued that having a body smaller than the Senate receive evidence deprived him of a "trial" by the Senate, which, under Article I, section 3 has "the sole Power to try all Impeachments." A six-member majority of Justices found that "the use of the word 'try' in the first sentence of the Impeachment Trial Clause lacks sufficient precision to afford any judicially manageable standard of review of the Senate's actions." It further held that judicial review was precluded by the vesting in the Senate of the "sole" power of trial and conviction: "If the courts may review the actions of the Senate …, it is difficult to see how the Senate would be 'functioning … independently …' "

Had the majority reached the merits, Nixon probably still would have lost, as Justice byron r. white argued in a concurring opinion. Many federal adjudications entail initial evidence-gathering by an official or entity other than the ultimate trier of fact. In contrast, the majority's nonmerits reasoning is peculiar. Given the constitutional inferences that the Court has confidently drawn in other adjudicative contexts, it seems incredible that the federal judiciary would be incompetent to determine what constitutes a legally sufficient impeachment trial. Nor would circumscribed judicial review seem to deprive the Senate of its "sole" power to conduct such trials.

Because impeachment is Congress's only constitutionally authorized check on miscreant judges, it is easy, however, to understand the Court's desire to exhibit self-restraint in policing the process. The Court may also have wanted to signal to the executive branch that it would not interfere with Congress's exclusive mechanism for forcing the removal of corrupt public officials.

Peter M. Shane

(see also: Judicial Impeachment.)


Gerhardt, Michael J. 1993 The Senate's Process for Removing Federal Judges. Pages 139–242 in National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal, Research Papers of the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal, Vol. I. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

——1994 Rediscovering Nonjusticiability: Judicial Review of Impeachments after Nixon. Duke Law Journal 44:231–276.

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Nixon v. United States 506 U.S. 224 (1993)

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