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Jurist would be 'at home' in Senate trial

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It's been the practice of William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court's chief justice, to take his new law clerks on a field trip of sorts: a quick hop across the street to the original Supreme Court chamber, which is housed in the Senate side of the Capitol.

There, under a ceiling vaulted like an umbrella, John Quincy Adams once pleaded on behalf of slaves from the ship Amistad. And there, with the aid of this architectural prop, Justice Rehnquist expounded before his young charges on the history and solemnity of the highest court in the land.

Now, with the extraordinary trial of President Clinton looming here, the chief justice may end up spending much of his time on the Senate side of the street, presiding over the first impeachment trial of a president since 1868.

According to legal experts, a trial couldn't be in better hands.

Not only does Rehnquist have 26 years' experience on the high court, he's also a historian who has written an authoritative book on the obscure subject of impeachment. As the 100 senators-cum-jurors struggle with a unique proceeding that is neither purely legal nor political, the black-robed Rehnquist will be there with his history, his solemnity - and, add legal analysts, also his fairness - to steer these Republicans and Democrats through the unknown.

"I think he will be pretty much more at home than anyone else in the room," says Charles Cooper, a 1978 participant in the Rehnquist field trip to the old Supreme Court chamber, who now has his own law firm here.

But there are varying opinions on just how much influence the chief justice would have in an impeachment trial.

It's up to the senators, for instance, to set the rules for the proceeding, while Rehnquist would simply enforce them. The chief justice won't necessarily have the final say because his rulings can be overturned by a simple majority of lawmakers.

His greatest power, the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote for conviction or acquittal, is unlikely to ever be triggered, since it's a near certainty that Republicans could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president. And if the senators decide to censure instead of try the president, Rehnquist would have no say in this essentially out-of-court settlement.

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