RICHMOND, Va. -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is presiding over President Clinton's impeachment trial, has sat as a trial judge just once before -- a case in which he was overturned on appeal.
The appeals court ruled Rehnquist should have dismissed the 1994 civil case, which involved freedom of speech rights for police.Modern U.S. Supreme Court justices almost never hear trials in lower courts. Rehnquist was invited by an acquaintance, Judge D. Dortch Warriner of Richmond's federal court.
Until then, Rehnquist had never presided over a trial and was never a judge in a lower court. Rehnquist was an assistant U.S. attorney general when President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1971. He became chief justice in 1986.
The Richmond trial was such a legal fluke that it received widespread news coverage. But when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Rehnquist in 1996, it received scant attention.
"It certainly was a gutsy thing for the 4th Circuit to reverse," said Joseph E. Blackburn Jr., who represented the defendant.
S. Keith Barker, represented the plaintiffs, said the experience was new for Rehnquist, "but there's no question he understood his role."
"He didn't flip-flop on his rulings," Barker told The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. "That's what you want in a judge."
The case originated from the town of Colonial Beach, after police broke up a confrontation between teenagers. In the process, a sergeant hit a 15-year-old boy in the head with a night stick.
An eyewitness, Officer Julian Heislup, gave two statements supporting the sergeant. Six weeks later, Heislup changed his story and accused the sergeant of hitting the teenager without provocation. Heislup said he initially lied to protect a fellow officer.
The Town Council suspended Heislup for three days for lying.
A police dispatcher named Linda Dixon also was suspended three days. She accused the sergeant of misconduct, then changed her story under questioning.
Heislup and Dixon sued the town, claiming their First Amendment right to speak up about police brutality were violated. They demanded $800,000 each.
The jury awarded Heislup $16,000 and Dixon $12,500.
In November 1986, a three-judge panel of the appeals court unanimously ruled a jury should not have heard the case.
The judges said government employees do not have absolute free speech rights. The panel said because Heislup and Dixon had lied, their rights were not violated.