Tainted Jury

How you look at things.
Oct. 15 1998 3:30 AM

Tainted Jury

Forget tampering, Clinton's impeachment panel would be struck for cause.

This week President Clinton went to New York to raise campaign money for Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is running for the U.S. Senate. Schumer, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, voted last week not to launch a broad impeachment inquiry against Clinton. Now that the inquiry has begun, Schumer eventually will have to vote on whether to recommend that Clinton be impeached.

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Republicans are challenging the ethics of this transaction. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, says it's "quite unseemly for the president of the United States, whose fate is in the hands of the Judiciary Committee ... to raise a lot of money for a member who sits on that committee." DeLay says that Clinton's "war room is totally engaged in jury tampering" and that "Schumer ought to recuse himself."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The "jury tampering" metaphor has been circulating ever since Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr submitted his impeachment referral to Congress. The metaphor supposes that members of Congress are Clinton's jurors and must be protected accordingly. Six days after receiving Starr's report, DeLay and other Republican leaders in Congress sent FBI Director Louis Freeh a letter protesting the dissemination of "prurient allegations" about the "personal lives" of members of Congress. The GOP leaders suggested that "the White House or its allies" were engaged in "an organized campaign of slander and intimidation" that was "no different than threatening jurors to change their verdicts in organized crime trials." House Speaker Newt Gingrich raised the "jury tampering" issue in public appearances. Some Democrats similarly bristled at Clinton's lobbying against the impeachment inquiry. "Don't tamper with this jury," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., admonished the White House.

The Clinton camp dismisses the jury metaphor as absurd. "There are probably members of the Republican leadership campaigning for Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee," Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart observed in response to DeLay's objection. "I don't think it's a legitimate issue."

But why not embrace the metaphor and its implications instead? Rule 24 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure details various grounds on which jurors may be deemed "unable or unqualified to perform their duties." These include "acquaintance or relationship with attorneys or witnesses" (in this case, chiefly Clinton and Starr) and biases regarding "credibility of witnesses" (in this case, whether Starr's witnesses would automatically be regarded more favorably). The rule cites precedents under which the "defendants' right to be tried by impartial jury included [the] right to examination designed to ascertain possible prejudices of prospective jurors." Furthermore, the "trial judge" is authorized to "remove" any juror during the trial, "whenever facts are presented which convince [the] trial judge that [the] juror's ability to perform his duty as juror is impaired."

If, as DeLay imagines, members of Congress were to be treated like jurors, the presiding officer would never get around to the question of "tampering." He'd dismiss the whole panel for cause.

Recent "Frame Games"

"Reverse Triangulation": How Clinton's immoderation helps the Democrats look moderate. (posted Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1998)

"The Nixon Analogy": Why the Flytrap-Watergate comparison will backfire. (posted Friday, Oct. 2, 1998)

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