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Nixon v. United States

Citation. 506 U.S. 224, 113 S.Ct. 732, 122 L.E.2d 1 (1993).
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Brief Fact Summary.

Nixon, a former federal district court judge, was tried and convicted for federal crimes by a Senate committee. The Senate subsequently voted to impeach Nixon and remove him from his office as a district court judge. Nixon sued on the basis that he was tried only by a portion of the Senate, a select Senate committee, whereas the Constitution explicitly grants authority to the Senate as a whole to try impeachments.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A controversy is nonjusticiable where there is a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it. The lack of judicially manageable standards may strengthen the conclusion that there is a textually demonstrable commitment to a coordinate branch.


Walter Nixon, a former Chief Judge of a federal district court, was convicted of making false statements before a grand jury and sentenced to prison. The Senate invoked its own Impeachment Rule XI, under which the presiding officer appoints a committee of Senators to “receive evidence and take testimony.” This committee of senators held 4 days of hearings and afterwards presented the full Senate with a complete transcript of the proceeding and report summarizing the evidence. The Senate voted to convict Nixon and the presiding officer entered judgment to remove Nixon from his office as U.S. District Judge. Nixon thereafter brought suit arguing that Impeachment Rule XI violates the constitutional grant of authority to the Senate to “try” all impeachments because it prohibits the whole Senate from taking part in the evidentiary hearings.


Is Nixon’s claim justiciable?


Nixon’s claim is nonjusticiable because it is a political question.


The Constitution provides that “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.” The use of the word “try” lacks sufficient precision to afford any judicially manageable standard of review of the Senate’s action. This conclusion is fortified by the existence of the 3 specific requirements that the Constitution does impose on the Senate when trying impeachments: the members must be under oath, a two-thirds vote is required to convict, and the Chief Justice presides when the President is tried. There are two additional reasons why the Supreme Court was not chosen to have any role in impeachments. First, the Framers recognized that there would be two sets of proceedings for individuals who commit impeachable offenses–the impeachment trial and a separate criminal trial. The Framers deliberately separated the two forums to avoid potential bias and ensure independent judgments. Judicial review of the Senate’s “trial” would introduce risk of bias. Second, judicial review would be inconsistent with the Framers’ insistence that our system be one of checks and balances. Judicial involvement in impeachment proceedings would eliminate the important constitutional check placed on the judiciary by the Framers.

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