Impeachment hearings open in Congress process defies voters' verdict

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AMERICA'S LEGAL and political machinery was sharply at odds with the will of the electorate yesterday over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Just days after voters had issued a "hands off the President" message, Congress started formal impeachment hearings and the Supreme Court handed down two more defeats for Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky case.

The Supreme Court rulings upheld lower court decisions that placed limits on the confidentiality enjoyed by the President and White House staff.

In majority verdicts, the Supreme Court said conversations between a President and White House lawyers (as opposed to the President's personal lawyers) did not enjoy lawyer-client privilege and that a lawyer paid from public funds was obliged to answer grand jury questions about possible criminal conduct by a government official - including the President.

The second ruling extended the same principle to secret service officers. It said in effect that the first duty of presidential bodyguards was to the law, and not - if the two conflicted - to the President they were paid to protect.

The White House had taken the two cases to the Supreme Court to clarify the principle.More than a dozen secret service officers and White House staff testified under oath in the Monica Lewinsky case after attempting to claim privilege. In the case of the secret service officers, who gave details of Ms Lewinsky's Oval Office trysts with the President, their evidence was damaging and showed clearly why the White House would have preferred them not to testify.

It is questionable whether yesterday's verdicts will have any further bearing on the Lewinsky case, as the independent prosecutor's report is already written and published, and constitutes the bulk of the written evidence in the impeachment hearings. A sub-committee of the House of Representatives judiciary committee heard evidence yesterday about the history of impeachment from 20 legal and constitutional experts, most of them university professors. The session was designed to put the coming hearings, which open on 19 November, in context.

The two overwhelming impressions from the proceedings, however, were the polarisation of the experts and committee members alike about the constitutional grounds for impeaching the President, and an unstated but perceptible wish on the part of many that the impeachment process could be turned back.

The problem for the committee is that last month's House vote to institute impeachment proceedings is irreversible.

As committee members tacitly recognised yesterday, last week's elections showed little appetite among voters for impeaching Mr Clinton. The vote cost the Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, his job, not Mr Clinton.

Even the likely successor to Mr Gingrich, Bob Livingston, has said the election results should not be ignored. "The American people," he said, "have certainly indicated in the polls that they don't see it [the Lewinsky affair] as an impeachable or dismissible offence."

Several legal experts called before the committee yesterday seemed less certain. "No one, not even a popular president, is above the law," said Professor Gary McDowell.

On the Republican side of the House of Representatives, there was widespread agreement with that principle, with Asa Hutchinson insisting: "There should be a higher standard for those in public office and if this does not go forward, there would be a lower standard for the President than for others."

But Jerrold Nadler spoke for many Democrats when he said: "The President is being asked to do what no American should be expected to do: prove his innocence."