Samuel Chase Impeachment Trial

72px-Samuel_ChaseIn working through my next article, I’ve gotten more interested in the 1805 impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase.  Chase’s acquittal by the Senate established the principle that Justices should not be removed from office simply because we do not like their rulings, ideology, or party.  Indeed, no Justice has been impeached since (though Justice Fortas might have been had he not resigned after allegations of misconduct).

One facet of that trial complicates the story.  Chase was impeached (largely) for being a partisan Federalist judge.  Thus, his removal could have established the principle that excessive partisanship by judges was wrong. In other words, the trial was about whether Article III contemplated a neutral judiciary or an independent one.  While the latter rule trumped in his case, a powerful norm eventually developed to support the idea that judges should be politically neutral and that the nomination and confirmation of judges must respect some neutral boundaries.   (My account is kind of sketchy–part of my holiday reading will be about the details of the trial so that I can further develop this argument).

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4 Responses

  1. Dan Cole says:

    It wasn’t just about ideology, though, Gerard. Chase was actually prosecuting cases from the bench, particularly in cases under the 1798 Sedition Act. For instance, in the trial of Thomas Cooper, “Chase … challenged Cooper’s defense…. Chase’s charge to the jury included a strident defense of the Sedition Act, and he characterized one part of Cooper’s defense as ‘the boldest attempt I have known to poison the minds of the people.’ The justice even offered the jury arguments that he thought should have been presented by the prosecutor.” (Bruce A. Ragsdale, “The Sedition Act Trials,” in Federal Trials and Great Debates in United States History, Federal Judicial Center, Federal Judicial History Office, 2005, p. 5.)



  2. wreynolds says:

    I have long thought (and I believe historians agree) that the impeachment was part of Jefferson’s effort to control the judiciary. They first went after a lower ct judge in NH for being a drunk, removed him, and then w/ a precedent for removal, went after Chase.

    Altho the charges against Chase were bleak, they were really a pretext to try and establish TJ’s control over the judiciary. Thanks to a brilliant defense by my hero, Luther Martin, Chase prevailed. Although he was a bum

  3. JDH says:

    At least at first, Jefferson’s threat to the judiciary was pretty effective. The year after Madison v. Marbury, Chief Justice Marshall contemplated allowing legislative review of Supreme Court opinions as an alternative to impeachment, saying that reversal of unpopular opinions “would certainly better comport with the mildness of our character than a removal of the judge who has rendered them unknowing of his fault.” (As quoted in Jane Shaffer Elsmere, Justice Samuel Chase, 1980, p. 177.)

  4. Joe says:

    The first comment reminds me of Eric Foner, the historian, arguing that the Johnson Impeachment wasn’t as outrageous as people think either. Still, it should be noted that judges’ charges were more ideological in that day and age. Defenses of the underlining law wasn’t to my understanding out of the question — charges could be mini-lectures with educational functions to the jury. If Chase crossed the line — including given that juries in that day also had more power to try both law and facts — has been debated. Such is my reading after reading a few accounts on the proceedings.