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Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Clinton Trial
One of the most informative and delightful TV programs I have ever seen was C-Span's "A Profile of Chief Justice Rehnquist," which traced his career through extracts from his speeches with comments by David Savage, Supreme Court correspondent of the Los Angeles Times. In court, the Chief Justice comes across as a befittingly august figure, but in this biography we see him as a bright, well-read, witty and charming person. Stanford University should be especially proud since he is a graduate, as is another Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, his 1952 Law School class mate.
Like most people, I am uneasy about the Clinton trial, but for unusual reasons. It is the Supreme Court's task to interpret the constitution and "original intent." Yet I am tired to history professors belaboring that issue, poring like cabalists over the torah, without ever realizing that the U.S. constitution, like others, has flaws, indeed conspicuous ones. The worst is "from that to this," "this" being the dignity of the Senate proceedings, "that" being the political conventions which start the cycle. These mob scenes of delegates yelling and waving signs are worse than soccer matches, and the intellectual content is about that of the baloons released at the victory of the people's choice. There is no other Western country in which choices are made like this, and the result is the present trial of Clinton. To overhaul the American constitution is imperative.
My second concern is that, despite all the talk of original intent, there is one misintrepretation of which even Chief Justice Rehnquist seems unaware. He rightly stressed the difference between a written and an oral presentation, but then he read the expression "High crimes and misdemeanors" as though "high" referred to both. It does not. There is no such thing as a "high misdemeanor." It is a contradiction in terms. The result of the trial may depend on Justice Rehnquist's voice.
A tape of the interview may be obtained from C-Span (800/277-2698). It should be in every school library.
Ronald Hilton - 01/09/99