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Nixon v. United States

Citation. 506 U.S. 224, 113 S.Ct. 732, 122 L.Ed.2d 1 (1993)
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Citation. 506 U.S. 224, 113 S.Ct. 732, 122 L.Ed.2d 1 (1993)

Brief Fact Summary.

While trying Nixon for impeachment, a Senate committee received evidence and testimony from Nixon and presented their findings to the full Senate who impeached him.  Nixon challenged that this process violated Article I, Section 3, clause 6 because the Senate Committee was less than the full Senate.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Framers gave the Senate the “sole” power to try impeachments.  Therefore, the Court cannot overturn the Senate’s decision to appoint a committee to receive evidence and testimony in an impeachment.


Walter Nixon, a former Chief Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi was sentenced to prison for lying before a federal grand jury.  Based on his conviction, the Senate voted to impeach him.   The Senate voted to invoke Impeachment Rule XI, where the person presiding over the impeachment appoints a committee to “receive evidence and take testimony.” A Senate committee presided over the case for four days, before ultimately presenting a complete report to the full Senate.  The Senate impeached Nixon, and he challenged that this process violated Article I, Section 3, clause 6 because the Senate Committee was less than the full Senate.


Whether Nixon’s claim that an impeachment proceeding needed to be before the full Senate, not merely a Senate committee, was a nonjusticiable political question.


CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST holding:  Yes, this was a nonjusticiable political question.  Nonjusticiable questions arise when there is “a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate [branch]; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it . . . .”  Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962).  The Constitution grants the Senate the “sole Power to try all impeachments.” Art. I, Sec. 3, cl. 6.  The word “sole” ensures that this power remains with the Senate and that they alone get to decide upon impeachment or acquittal.   Impeachment was designed by the Framers “to be the only check on the Judicial Branch by the Legislature,” so the judiciary must take a hands-off approach to impeachment to not interfere with this “important constitutional check.”  Finally, if the Court were to insert itself into impeachments, it would raise finality questions, and it would be unclear as to what relief the Court could grant.


Justice Stevens

The significance of the words “try” and “sole” pale in comparison to the fact that the Framers assigned the impeachment power to the Legislative branch.

Justice White

Justice White would not have dismissed the case on justiciability grounds, but agreed that the Senate had fulfilled its duty in “trying” Nixon.  He reasoned that a constitutional commitment to one branch does not end the Court’s involvement.  Instead, the Court must examine whether another branch has “final responsibility for interpreting the scope and nature of such a power.”

Justice Souter

Justice Souter agreed that the case was nonjusticiable, but he disagreed with the majority seemingly holding that the Court could never review impeachment proceedings.  He argued that if the Senate left an impeachment up to something arbitrary like a coin toss, the Court could intervene.


Nixon argued that the word “try” meant that an impeachment proceeding must be like a judicial trial and thus must be before the entire Senate.  The Court disagreed, reasoning that the Constitution typically speaks more generally, and the word “try” alone does not create any added requirements.  “Try” is not specific, so the Court did not have a “manageable standard” to decide the proper procedure.   The Framers had already set out specific requirements for trying impeachments (two-thirds vote, must be under oath, Chief Justice presides over the impeachment when the President is tried), so it suggests that the Framers provided for all the requirements that they intended.

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