For only the second time in American history, the president has been impeached by the House of Representatives and is facing trial by the United States Senate. At such a critical point in our history as a nation, the question is "What comes next?" Most Americans have only a vague notion of the history surrounding the first presidential impeachment trial. So, where do we go for answers?
Here in Grand Inquests, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist provides dramatic accounts of two historic impeachment trials in the American past. With a keen sense of history and narrative ability, he recounts the 1805 trial of Justice Samuel Chase of the United States Supreme Court and the 1868 trial of President Andrew Johnson, which set the precedent by which our current president will be judged. The outcomes of these cases have remained extraordinarily important to the American system of government because they strengthened the constitutionally directed separation of powers. And though both men were acquitted, Chief Justice Rehnquist shows how a conviction in either case would also have deeply affected our present interpretation of the Constitution -- and, more likely, changed the course of history.
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With Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist playing a front-and-center role as the presiding officer in President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, it's no wonder that his 1992 study of the two most important previous impeachments in United States history was brought back into print. But anyone looking for political commentary will probably be disappointed--Grand Inquests is a straightforward, and surprisingly readable, narrative account, top-heavy with historical details.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase was impeached in 1805 both for his political views and as a result of his demeanor as a judge. Rehnquist acknowledges that Chase was "impatient, overbearing, and arrogant," but asserts that his behavior falls far short of the grounds for impeachment: high crimes and misdemeanors. He further argues that the acquittal of Chase helped safeguard the independence of the Supreme Court, preventing future Congresses from removing judges "whose views they considered to be unwise or out of keeping with the times." The acquittal of President Andrew Johnson in his 1868 trial was a similar victory for the executive branch, permitting future chief executives to govern as they see fit ... even if that runs counter to the desires of Congress.
Rehnquist makes it clear that he believes the impeachments of both Chase and Johnson were politically motivated, and that it was a good thing for the United States that neither was convicted. He says a relaxed standard of impeachment would have been like "a sword of Damocles, designed not to fall but to hang" over the head of future presidents who would fear removal from office if they did not go along with Congress. --Linda KillianAbout the Author:
William H. Rehnquist is the sixteenth Chief Justice of the United States and the author of The Supreme Court and All the Laws but One.
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