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In our opinion: It’s impeachment trial week. Here’s what to keep in mind

Other than declaring war, sitting as a jury at an impeachment trial is as serious a task as a senator can perform.

From left, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., Rep. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., walk to the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Julio Cortez, Associated Press

On the one hand, the president of the United States calls the upcoming impeachment trial a “big hoax.”

On the other, the speaker of the House cheapens the proceedings by using 30 different pens to sign two articles of impeachment, then hands these out to associates as souvenirs. Congressional leaders and presidents typically do this to celebrate the signing of important bills. Yes, Republican leaders kept pens as souvenirs after signing oaths at the start of the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1999, but for the House Speaker to do such a thing to mark a solemn occasion was unseemly.

The Senate trial of President Trump begins this week, and while the lead-up to it has been about as political as each side possibly could make it, we hope that attitude doesn’t prevail going forward. Other than declaring war, sitting as a jury at an impeachment trial is as serious a task as a senator can perform. The American people deserve to have their senators treat it as such.

That air of solemnity ought to have begun last week when the Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger introduced House managers to the Senate chamber with the words, “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment, while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against President Donald John Trump, President of the United States.”

If those words sound archaic, it is because they date back 151 years and have been used exactly twice in the nation’s history — once in 1869 as the Senate convened to try evidence against President Andrew Johnson, and the other as Clinton’s impeachment trial began 21 years ago.

But perhaps the most noteworthy part of last week’s preparation for trial came when Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the proceedings, administered oaths to all 100 senators — oaths that were attested to in a book that will be stored in the national archives.

Note that each senator already took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution” when he or she assumed office. This oath is in addition to that.

Professor Richard Arenberg of Brown University, an authority on the history of Congress and its procedures, told the BBC that this additional oath is significant because “it’s to underline that this is different from the partisan and legislative procedures they normally go through.

“Even beyond the oath of the Constitution when they take office, they need to additionally swear to offer impartial justice in this trial.”

Impartial justice is the key. Despite the rhetoric, the fights over witnesses and evidence during House hearings and the pressure to toe to a party line, this stands supreme. An oath is a serious matter. Impartiality is a sacred duty.

The Senate trial of President Trump is not a time for slogans, cat-calls or gleeful souvenir hunting. It is a matter of grave consequence for the republic, and it should be decided by deliberation and merit.