WASHINGTON -- At about midday today, William H. Rehnquist will get into the back seat of a Supreme Court limousine and take a quick four-block ride into history -- to the Capitol to become the first chief justice to preside over an impeachment trial of an elected president.
The initial duties for the 74-year-old chief justice will be ceremonial only.
But nearly every gesture Rehnquist makes is likely to provide at least a hint of the kind of presiding officer he will be when -- and if -- a trial gets fully under way.
After today's rituals, Rehnquist will be formally in charge. But the trial is unlikely to begin promptly, so the exact role he will play is as yet unsettled.
In fact, it is not clear that plans for the trial will be fully developed for several more days.
Whenever the Senate meets on impeachment from here on, and until the proceedings end, Rehnquist will preside, guided largely by Senate rules and by whispered help from a Senate parliamentarian seated near him.
His administrative assistant, James Duff, and a law clerk will be with him.
Any time that his Senate role conflicts with a meeting of the Supreme Court, Rehnquist is expected to remain in the Senate.
The court will hold hearings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week and Tuesday and Wednesday the following week, but the chief justice will not skip any Senate trial sessions to be at the court.
Should he miss any court hearings, Rehnquist can listen to tapes later and still take part in any decisions.
The private meetings of the court can be run without him by the senior associate justice, John Paul Stevens.
No one on the court or on its staff appears to be troubled that the Senate trial will disrupt the court's work. Rehnquist seems to believe that his impeachment role is a priority he can easily accommodate.
The Constitution leaves no doubt that the assignment is his: "When the president of the United States is tried, the chief justice shall preside."
Rehnquist's first day in that role is the only matter precisely planned so far: It will be shaped by tradition and by Senate rules mostly dating to 1868 and the Senate's only other impeachment trial of a president -- Andrew Johnson.
Critical of 1868 action
Rehnquist, in a 1990 speech and in a 1992 book about impeachment, was critical of the impeachment of Johnson, who was acquitted and remained in office.
Because the charges against Johnson were based on the way he handled his normal presidential powers -- and not on any charges of crime -- Rehnquist suggested that a conviction of Johnson would have moved the nation "closer to a regime of congressional supremacy" dreaded by those who drafted the Constitution.
So far as is known, Rehnquist has offered no such personal judgment about the impeachment charges against President Clinton.
But the chief justice has been critical of the political atmosphere that surrounded the Johnson trial 130 years ago. Thus, he might use his role as presiding officer to squelch anything that looks like a partisan gesture or maneuver.
If custom prevails, Rehnquist will be addressed as "Mr. President," the usual title for the chamber's chair when a man presides.
Likely to assert control
Though likely to defer to the senators, to avoid intruding into a process that the Constitution leaves mainly to their discretion, Rehnquist is likely to be a highly visible participant who asserts control over matters within the chair's discretion -- such as controlling the admission of evidence and deciding procedural questions, subject to being overridden by a majority vote of the Senate.
Still, the opportunities for the chief justice to take control won't be known until the Senate decides how to proceed beyond today.
But here is what he will do today: Arriving on the Senate side of the Capitol, Rehnquist will go up one floor and don his black robe with four brilliant gold stripes on each sleeve, inspired by a costume in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "Iolanthe."
Then he will enter the chamber with five senators as escorts, ascend the podium and offer a greeting patterned after this:
"Senators: I attend the Senate in obedience to your notice, for the purpose of joining with you in forming a court of impeachment for the trial of the President of the United States, and I am now ready to take the oath."
"I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God."
His next act will be to administer that same oath to the 100 senators. Though the right of any senator to take part could be challenged by another senator -- and there was such a challenge in 1868 -- no challenges are expected this time.
The day's proceedings may close soon after that. The final gesture of the day could be the issuance of a summons to Clinton, formally notifying him that he is on trial and that he has the option of defending himself, in person or through his lawyers.
Pub Date: 1/07/99