Impeachment Trial of Samuel Chase

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IMPEACHMENT TRIAL OF SAMUEL CHASE. On 2 May 1803, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase delivered a charge to a Baltimore grand jury in which he blasted Congress and the Jefferson administration for repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801 and thus unseating federal circuit court judges. He also lashed out at the Maryland legislature for eliminating property qualifications for the franchise and for interfering with the operation of Maryland's courts. Chase railed that America was risking a descent into "mobocracy," which he called "the worst form of all governments." Earlier, in the election year of 1800, he had earned the enmity of the Jeffersonians for his judicial conduct during seditious libel prosecutions of newspaper editors and others who were critical of the incumbent president, John Adams, and sympathetic to his challenger, Jefferson. Chase's active campaigning for Adams similarly secured their ire.

Thus, in 1804, the House of Representatives, with the tacit blessing of Jefferson, brought articles of impeachment against Chase, and he was tried before the Senate in 1805. There were eight articles, but the most important involved the 1803 grand jury charge and the allegedly partisan nature of Chase's conduct of the 1800 trial of James Thompson Callender, who had written a book critical of Adams, and of the trial for treason of John Fries, also in 1800.

The Senate prosecution of Chase was conducted by Representative John Randolph, a firebrand proponent of states' rights from Virginia. At the trial, Randolph presented an emotional but disorganized harangue against Chase. Chase was defended by the finest lawyers the Federalists could assemble, who emphasized that he was not accused of any crimes, but rather was impeached merely because he took legal positions not in accordance with the jurisprudential theories advanced by Jeffersonians. In particular, in the Callender and Fries trials Chase had sought to exclude evidence or arguments that he thought irrelevant and which might mislead the jury. Randolph argued that the juries should have been allowed to determine the law and the facts with a maximum of discretion, but Chase believed the jury had a more narrow role, to apply the law as given to it by the judge to the facts as found from the most reliable evidence. Chase's rulings were in keeping with what was to become American orthodoxy and Randolph's notions were no longer in the mainstream.

Chase's philippic before the Baltimore grand jury was more political than judicial, but the requisite two-thirds majority could not be found in the Senate even for conviction on that conduct. Persuaded that the prosecution of Chase represented an inappropriate attack on the independence of the judiciary, some Jeffersonian Republicans joined all the Federalist members of the Senate in voting to acquit, and thus Chase prevailed. The conventional wisdom regarding the outcome of Chase's impeachment—the only such proceeding ever brought against a U.S. Supreme Court justice—is that it showed that a judge could not be removed simply for taking politically unpopular positions. Less often observed is that the Chase impeachment caused the Supreme Court to shy away from overt displays of politics, and to a great extent, that it caused the federal judges to give up their role as "Republican schoolmasters" to the American public.


Presser, Stephen B. The Original Misunderstanding: The English, the Americans, and the Dialectic of Federalist Jurisprudence. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1991.

Whittington, Keith E. Constitutional Construction: Divided Powers and Constitutional Meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Stephen B.Presser

See alsoImpeachment ; Supreme Court .