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Impeachment : Justice Samuel Chase

Provides an overview of the Congressional power ofimpeachment, impeachment procedures, and past presidential and other executive branch impeachments.

Quick Facts and Quick Links

  • Only impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice
  • Based on rulings and conduct Chase made in politically-sensitive trials conducted under the Sedition Act
  • Largely politically motivated (the final article of impeachment referred explicitly to "the low purpose of an electioneering partizan"
  • Acquitted despite Democratic Republicans far outnumbering members of his own party, the Federalists, in the Senate

United States Senate, Art & History, Senate Prepares for Impeachment Trial (senate.gov)

13 Annals of Cong. (1803-04) (HeinOnline)

14 Annals of Cong. (1804-05) (HeinOnline)

The Only Impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice

Samuel Chase, a staunch Federalist, saw no reason to tone down his partisan rhetoric when he began serving on the Supreme Court in 1796.  This became a problem for him when, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the President and his party, the Democratic Republicans, gained control of Congress.  At Jefferson's urging, Representative James Randolph of Virginia initiated impeachment proceedings against chase, declaring that he would wipe the floor with the abrasive justice.  The House voted on March 12, 1804 to impeach Chase, accusing him of refusing to dismiss biased jurors and excluding or limiting defense witnesses in a pair of politically-sensitive cases in 1800 (at the time, Supreme Court justices rode the circuits and presided over trials when the Court was not in session; in addition, the Sedition Act restricted speech critical of the federal government under Federalist John Adams and resulted in the prosecution and conviction of many Jeffersonian newspaper owners who dissented from the government).  There were eight articles of impeachment approved by the House on the 3d and 4th of November, 1804:

  1. That, while presiding over a treason trial in Philadelphia, he conducted himself "in his judicial capacity . . . in a manner highly arbitrary, oppressive, and unjust," by, among other things, delivering an opinion on the construction of the law before the defense had presented its case, thus prejudicing the jury; unjustly restricting the legal authorities the defense could cite; and depriving the defendant of his Constitutional right to present a legal as well as a factual argument, all of which deprived the defendant of his rights under the Eighth Amendment;
  2. While presiding over the trial at Richmond of Democratic Republican publisher James Thompson Callender* for libel against President John Adams (a Federalist), Chase refused to dismiss a juror who asked to be excused because he had made up his mind about the publication at issue in the case;
  3. In the Callender trial, Chase excluded the exculpatory evidence of a witness for the defense, John Taylor, because "he could not prove the truth of the whole of one of the charges contained in the indictment, although the said charge embraced more than one fact;" this was done, according to this article, "with intent to oppress and procure the conviction" of Callender;
  4. Chase's conduct was unjust, impartial, and intemperate during the Callender trial, including requiring defense counsel to submit in writing in advance to Chase for admission or rejection all questions he intended to ask Taylor; refusal to postpone the trial after the rejection of Taylor's testimony in order to secure other witnesses; "the use of unusual, rude, and contemptuous expressions" toward defense counsel, as well as false accusations of stirring up public fears and indignation; and "an indecent solicitude . . . for the conviction of the accused . . . highly disgraceful to the character of a judge, as it was subversive to justice;" 
  5. Detained Callender during trial in violation of federal law;
  6. Rushed the trial of Callender;
  7. While presiding over a grand jury in Delaware, "disregarding the duties of his office, did descend from the dignity of a judge, and stoop to the level of an informer," and refused to discharge the grand jury even though they had found no cause for indictment, telling them of a seditious printer in Wilmington whose works might furnish some cause for indictment; and
  8. Perverted his official right and duty to address the grand jury over which he presided in Maryland by delivering "opinions, which, even if the judicial authority were competent to their expression, on a suitable occasion and in a proper manner, were at that time, and as delivered by him, highly indecent, extra-judicial, and tending to prostitute the high judicial character which which he was invested, to the low purpose of an electioneering partizan."

14 Annals of Cong. 86-87: Trial of Judge Chase (1804)

The House selected impeachment managers to make its case to the Senate and referred the articles of impeachment to the Senate.  On the 30th of November, 1804, the Senate appointed a committee to begin preparations for trial, and began the trial on January 4, 1805.  When the trial began, the Senate consisted of 25 Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans and nine Federalists.  Chase declared that he was being tried for his political convictions rather than any real high crime or misdemeanor and requested a month's postponement to prepare a defense.  The postponement was granted, and trial resumed on February 4. 

Chase's defense team convinced several of the Jeffersonians that the impeachment was merely political payback, and did not warrant his removal from office.  At least six Jeffersonians joined the Federalists in voting against conviction on each article, meaning that while a majority voted for conviction on three of the eight counts, the vote fell short of the required two-thirds on every article.  Chase was acquitted on March 1, 1805 and returned to the bench, where he served until his death in 1811. 

For further reading, see:

United States Senate Art & History: Senate Prepares for Impeachment Trial

14 Annals of Cong., 81-676: Trial of Samuel Chase, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Impeached by the House of Representatives for High Crimes and Misdemeanors, before the Senate of the United States (1804-05)

13 Annals of Cong. (1803-04) (use index to locate proceedings and debates on Chase)

14 Annals of Cong. (1804-05) (use index to locate proceedings and debates on Chase)

Paul M. Downing, Cong. Research Serv., JC 585 A, 72-41 GGR, Acts of Civil Disobedience in American History: Selected Examples (1972)

*Fans of Hamilton will appreciate that Callender's threat to print an expose of Alexander Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds and false accusations of financial speculations led to Hamilton's publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet in 1797 to get ahead of the scandal.