When the framers of the Constitution made an impeachment trial by the Senate the only way to unseat a federal judge, they didn't think they were creating a problem. After all, the judiciary was tiny, and judges would be carefully screened. Indeed, only four judges were removed in the first 197 years of the nation's history. But three judges have been tossed out in the past six years, and Congress is suddenly facing a judicial-impeachment headache.

On Sept. 17, Judge Stanley Sporkin ruled that the Senate violated the rights of impeached Miami Judge Alcee L. Hastings when it used a special 12-member committee to handle most of his trial. A similar case involving former Judge Walter L. Nixon Jr. of Mississippi is before the Supreme Court.

Most legal observers think that in the end, the high court will let the streamlined procedure stand. With 828 federal judges -- up from 661 in 1978 -- Congress finds it increasingly difficult to carry out its role as judicial overseer. Members are eagerly awaiting the report of the National Commission on Judicial Discipline & Removal, which they hope will suggest ways to ease the burden while guarding the rights of judges.

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