A Very Public Trial for a Very Private Justice

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Chief Justice William Rehnquist has the kind of face that gets lost in a crowd, and that's the way he likes it. For years he has blocked broadcasting the work of the Supreme Court. But this week the professorial 74-year-old will cross the narrow street that separates his courthouse from the Capitol to become, at least for a while, the most televised person in America, the one in charge of President Clinton's trial in the Senate.

It's the role of a lifetime, and he's prepared. In 1992 he published Grand Inquests, a 278-page history of the 19th century impeachment trials of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. The book is out of print, but frenzied demand from reporters and congressional staff members desperate for clues about how Rehnquist will run Clinton's trial drove it to No. 23 on Amazon.com's best-seller list and persuaded the publisher, William Morrow and Co., to reissue it next week in paperback. The book is painfully judicious in refusing to offer opinions but seems to applaud the acquittals of Chase and Johnson as victories for an independent judiciary and strong presidency.

Those who have watched his work at the Supreme Court over the past 27 years believe Rehnquist will be far more deferential than he is accustomed to being on his own turf. Rehnquist has been known to cut lawyers off in mid-sentence when their time has expired and to berate those who don't know or don't follow the rules. Lately he has also insisted somewhat grandly that lawyers call his colleagues on the Supreme Court "Mr. Justice" or "Madam Justice" rather than the more common "Judge."

In the Senate the rules may appear to give him great power--Senators are required to sit completely mute and put in writing any question they have for witnesses so he can read it aloud--but in fact he has no power to decide anything. Whatever rulings Rehnquist may make on questions of procedure and evidence can be overturned by majority vote: the jury is in charge of the judge.

When the proceedings start, his authority will depend largely on how impartial he appears. He is a celebrated conservative who as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson argued in a memo that segregated schools were constitutional. He wrote so many solo dissents in his early years as a Justice, when the court was more liberal, that he kept a Lone Ranger doll on his mantelpiece. Though he has hired some 80 law clerks, none has been black (he responds that he has "never excluded consideration of anyone" based on race). His natural ideological allies are the sort of Republicans who favor Clinton's conviction. But court watchers say he has moved toward the center over the years, partly due to the arrival of other conservatives who can hold down the right flank.

Indeed, even liberals expect him to run the Senate trial in a way that commands bipartisan respect. "He's perfect for this job," says Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University school of law. "He'll behave with all the politesse and decorum of a visitor in someone else's house. He has a keen sense of place." But if Rehnquist finds his unusual role less than appealing, he has himself partly to blame. When Clinton petitioned the court to defer the Paula Jones case until after his presidency, Rehnquist joined the other Justices in ruling that "it appears to us highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner's time"--proof that even the Chief Justice can make mistakes.