Washington, 20 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - The trial of a U.S. president by the Senate of the United States has been described as being as solemn as a papal conclave and as serious as a declaration of war.
The U.S. Constitution grants the sole power of impeachment to the U.S. House of Representatives. Impeachment, however, does not mean automatic removal, and the Constitution requires a trial that may only be conducted in the Senate.
The House approved articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton on Saturday. His fate is now in the hands of the 100 members of the Senate.
Unlike the House -- which often seems to make up rules of procedure as it moves along -- the Senate follows a strict regime. The manner of conducting a trial on impeachment charges is set down in precise language that is to be followed to the letter.
The trial must begin one day after the Senate formally receives the articles of impeachment from the House. Congressional leaders have said they expect that to happen within a week of the convening of the new congress on Jan. 6.
The rules state that the trial must begin at 1300 (1900 Prague time). Senators must meet for the trial at that time each day, except Sunday, until a judgment is rendered.
The 100 members of the Senate will serve as the jury. The trial is presided over by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist. The House of Representatives chooses what it calls managers -- or prosecutors -- who will present the case against Clinton.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, a Republican from the midwestern state of Illinois, most likely will be chosen to manage the trial. Clinton has the right to be represented by a lawyer of his choice. Clinton does not have to be present during the trial.
There is speculation that Clinton will be defended by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell was formerly the leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate. Most recently, he served as Clinton's special envoy and helped draft a peace agreement for Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland.
During the trial, Senators must remain in their seats. They may not speak, and if they have questions, they must submit them in writing to Chief Justice Rehnquist.
The only exception to this rule permits a senator to offer a motion at any time to adjourn the trial permanently. Approval of such a motion requires only a simple majority and it would have the effect of ending the trial.
However, a number of influential senators have been quoted as saying that an adjournment motion is not likely to be made because most senators believe the impeachment proceedings must be allowed to run their course.
The trial has to be conducted in public. At its conclusion, every senator is required to stand and publicly announce a vote of guilty or not guilty. A two-thirds majority is required for conviction.
There is no appeal, and conviction, say some constitutional scholars, means removal from office. Some experts, however, believe that a separate vote would be required to remove the president.
The U.S. Congress has existed since 1789. Only once in its history has the Senate placed a president on trial. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote. In 1974, articles of impeachment were prepared against President Richard Nixon, but he resigned before the full House began an impeachment debate.
Clinton's trial will be unique. Andrew Johnson had been vice president and succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865.
Clinton would be the only elected president to stand trial. So far, no one is predicting a conviction. If that were to happen, though, Clinton would be succeeded for the remainder of his term by Vice President Al Gore. Clinton's term expires on Jan. 20, 2001.