What is the meaning of the verb “to try?” In 1992, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court consulted a shelf-full of dictionaries in search of a precise answer. They sought to settle a case initiated by a federal district judge, who in 1989 had been impeached by the House of Representatives and removed from office by the Senate. Imprisoned on a conviction for lying to a grand jury, Judge Walter Nixon disputed the Senate’s interpretation of “try” as it exercised its exclusive constitutional power to “to try all impeachments.”
The story began in 1986, when the House delivered to the Senate articles of impeachment against federal Judge Harry Claiborne, who had been imprisoned for tax fraud. As this was the first impeachment case to reach the Senate in half a century, members carefully reviewed the body's trial procedures. The Senate decided to create a special 12-member committee to receive the testimony of Claiborne—who had already been convicted in federal court—rather than tie up the full Senate busy with more pressing matters. On October 7, 1986, after the panel reported its findings, Claiborne appeared in the Senate Chamber for closing arguments. Two days later the Senate convicted and removed him from office.
In 1989, the House referred two more cases to the Senate. In both proceedings, the Senate employed a trial committee and allowed the defendant to participate in closing arguments before the full body. While considering articles against Federal Judge Alcee Hastings, the Senate received impeachment articles against Judge Nixon.
The Senate convicted Hastings in October 1989 and removed Nixon two weeks later. Both former jurists filed suit against the Senate for its use of the trial committee. Nixon argued that the Constitution’s framers had used the word “try” to mean that the entire Senate must participate in taking evidence, rather than merely “scanning a cold record” created by a committee. Although lower courts refused to take Nixon’s case, he took encouragement from a September 1992 decision in the Alcee Hastings case by Federal District Judge Stanley Sporkin. Finding the Senate’s use of the trial committee to be improper, Judge Sporkin reversed Hastings’ Senate conviction.
On January 13, 1993, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist put his dictionaries away and settled any doubts about all three cases. On behalf of a unanimous court, he ruled that authority over impeachment trials “is reposed in the Senate and nowhere else.”