506 U.S. 224 (1993), argued 14 Oct. 1992, decided 13 Jan. 1993 by a vote of 9 to 0; Rehnquist for the Court; White, Blackmun, and Souter concurring. On 9 February 1986, U.S. District Judge Walter L. Nixon of Mississippi was convicted in a federal court for lying to a special grand jury concerning allegations that he had accepted an illegal gratuity from a local businessmen. When Nixon refused to resign his judicial office, the House of Representatives approved three articles of impeachment against him on 10 May 1989. Article I, section 2, clause 5 of the Constitution vests in the Senate the “sole power to try all impeachments.” Pursuant to its internal rules of operation, the Senate established an evidentiary committee of twelve senators to receive testimony from witnesses and issue findings in Nixon's case. Relying at least in part on the committee's report, the full Senate deliberated for two days on Nixon's fate before voting to convict him on two of the three articles of impeachment on 3 November 1989. Nixon thereafter challenged his removal, claiming that when the Senate delegated to a committee the power to hear testimony, it abandoned its constitutional obligation to “try” the impeachment as a full body. Nixon v. United States forced the Supreme Court to once again consider the reach of the controversial Political Question Doctrine—would it preclude judicial interference in the workings of another branch of government? In Baker v. Carr (1962) a majority of the Court ruled that the doctrine was applicable whenever there was a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department.” (p. 217) Three decades later, Chief Justice William Rehnquist's majority decision in Nixon proved an exercise in judicial pragmatism, as the Court defended invocation of the doctrine in this instance. Certainly the meaning of the word “try” was not so precise as to yield a “workable standard of review” that limited the Senate. Of still greater concern, Rehnquist reasoned, was the lack of finality caused by judicial review of impeachment procedures–such review might threaten the stability of the executive branch and produce political chaos. Nixon v. United States thus breathed new life into the Political Question Doctrine, and should provide a significant impediment to courts interested in reviewing impeachment challenges in the future.
David A. Yalof