Assault on the Judiciary: The Use of Impeachment for Partisan Purposes

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Assault on the Judiciary: The Use of Impeachment for Partisan Purposes


Limits of Power. The defeat of John Adams and the Federalist Congress in 1800 gave Thomas Jefferson and his Republican Party control of the mechanics of the national government. As they were leaving office, the Federalists had contrived to keep Jefferson checked by the judiciary. The Judiciary Act of 1801 decreased the size of the Supreme Court from six to five members and created several lower court positions. Adams filled these positions and famously appointed a new chief justice, John Marshall, two months before leaving office. Because federal judges had lifetime tenures, the courts would be in Federalist hands for some time.

Jefferson Responds. Gouverneur Morris, the New York Federalist, wrote that in the heavy gale of adverse wind represented by Jefferson the outgoing Federalists could hardly be blamed for casting many anchors to hold their ship through the storm. Once in power Jeffersons allies in Congress enacted the Judiciary Act of 1802, repealing much of what the Federalists sought to do in 1801 and postponing the next session of the Supreme Court to 1803.

Pickering. Federal district court judge John Pickering of New Hampshire was a public embarrassment. Pickerings behavior on the bench was often marked with ravings, cursings, and crazed incoherences brought on by drink and growing mental instability. President Jefferson suggested to Congress that Pickerings bizarre behavior amounted to an impeachable offense. There was no other way to remove a federal judge who was no longer fit to serve but who refused to resign. In March 1803 the House of Representatives voted 45-8 to impeach Judge Pickering. The Senate convicted Pickering one year later, removing him from office. This was no small matter. The Constitution limited this power to the impeachable offenses of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Pickering may have been wholly unfit to serve on the bench, but he had not committed an impeachable offense. Some feared that if he could be removed for raving and cursing, then Congress would impeach other judges for political offenses.

Impulse to Impeach. In 1803 the Pennsylvania legislature removed Federalist judge Alexander Addison, largely because of his intemperate judicial behavior. An attempt to impeach three of the Pennsylvania Supreme Courts four judges narrowly failed. In Congress the Pickering experience encouraged the Republicans to target a more formidable force: Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Chase of Maryland.

Federalist Firebrand. Samuel Chase was a brilliant lawyer but an intemperate judge. As Henry Adams wrote, Chases temper knew no laws of caution. A staunch Federalist, Chase was the scourge of Jeffersonian republicanism. He presided over some of the most controversial cases of the Adams administration, including

the sedition trial of James Callender and the second treason trial of John Fries. Undaunted by the rejection of the Federalists at the 1800 election and furious at the Republican repeal of the 1801 Judiciary Act, Chase scolded a Baltimore grand jury in May 1803 to remember that the late alteration of the federal judiciary, by the abolition of the office of the sixteen circuit judges will in my judgment take away all security for property and personal liberty. The independence of the national judiciary is already shaken to its foundation and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy, the worst of all possible governments. Chases words were harsh, but his point about the importance of judicial independence went to the core of the federal system. Chases remarks ignited a firestorm. President Jefferson asked, after he learned of Chases comments in Baltimore: Ought this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution go unpunished? John Randolph of Virginia, one of the most radical Republicans and one of the initiators of the move to impeach Pickering, took up the cause to remove Chase. If the Republicans in Congress succeeded in removing Chase, Chief Justice Marshall could be next in line. A constitutional crisis was in the making.

Impeachment of Chase. The eight articles of impeachment against Chase read like a litany of Republican grudges against the Adams administration. Chase was charged with prejudicial conduct during the trial of John Fries, the Pennsylvania auctioneer turned tax rebel, and with improper conduct at the sedition trial of James Cal-lender. Chase was also charged with inappropriate partisan conduct in his intemperate charge to the Baltimore grand jury. Chase may have been guilty of poor judgment and an ill temper, but it is debatable if his conduct rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. When he read the charges against Chase, Chief Justice Marshall wrote that they were sufficient to alarm the friends of a pure and independent judiciary. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives had a different point of view, and they impeached Chase in 1804.

Trial. Chases trial before the Senate began on 4 February 1805 with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding. The defenses legal team included Maryland attorney general Luther Martin. Often intoxicated in court, Martin was nevertheless one of the leading lawyers in the nation. Martins opponent was Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, the leader of radical Republicans in the House. Randolph was brilliant, but he was outmatched by Martin during the trial. Martin focused attention on the need to link Chases conduct with a clearly expressed crime. Chase may have acted as a partisan Federalist and his rulings from the bench may have been at the far edge of correctness, but he was certainly guilty of no crime. Chase admitted that he had made honest errors and reminded the Senate that his outspoken behavior was not an uncommon practicejudges often expressed opinions from the bench. Luther Martin pressed the ultimate legal point: impeachment must be based on indictable offenses, not on rash or improper conduct. This decision, Martin told the assembled senators, will establish a most important precedent as to future cases of impeachment.

Verdict. The trial lasted most of February. On 1 March Vice President Burr called for the roll of senators on each of the articles of impeachment. All nine Federalist senators voted for acquittal. Several Republicans surprised many by also voting not guilty. A two-thirds majority was required for conviction on each count, and the Republicans could not muster anything more than a small majority vote on three of the eight articles. Chase was acquitted of all charges. Federalists, and even some Republicans, may have breathed a sigh of relief that the Senate refused to use impeachment for partisan means. The frenzy of impeachment proceedings quickly died down thereafter.

Aftermath. Samuel Chase went on to serve on the Supreme Court until his death on 19 June 1811. He continued to be outspoken and irascible and once clashed with Luther Martin when he appeared in Chases court visibly drunk. I am surprised that you can so prostitute your talents, Chase bellowed to Martin, who responded, Sir, I never prostituted my talents except when I defended you and Colonel Burr. Chase threatened Martin with contempt but relented, unable to punish his old friend and defender.


Henry Adams, History of the United States of America (New York: Scribners, 18891891);

William H. Rehnquist, Grand Inquests (New York: Morrow, 1992).

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Assault on the Judiciary: The Use of Impeachment for Partisan Purposes

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