WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist put a quick end yesterday to the constitutional controversy that a senator had stirred up Saturday over the House managers' interview of Monica Lewinsky during President Clinton's impeachment trial.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, had urged Rehnquist to overturn a ruling by a federal judge that gave House prosecutors the right to interview Lewinsky as a prelude to her potential appearance as a trial witness.
Though expressing doubt that he had the authority to act on his own, the chief justice said he would take action if "clearly warranted." He added that Harkin's protest "does not meet that criterion."
Rehnquist did not rely on the fact that the interview of Lewinsky had occurred Sunday afternoon. Instead, he implied that Harkin's protest was not well-founded.
"It is quite debatable," Rehnquist wrote in a two-page letter, "whether merely interviewing a witness" would violate the rules the Senate has adopted for the trial. The actual calling of a witness, he said, is up to the Senate.
The chief justice added that the situation was not changed by the fact that the House obtained the interview by having Judge Norma Holloway Johnson order Lewinsky to cooperate or lose her immunity to criminal prosecution. Johnson issued that order at the request of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, acting as a continuing investigator for House prosecutors.
Harkin had argued that Johnson's order was an unconstitutional interference with the Senate's control of trial witnesses.
Pub Date: 1/26/99