A Brief History
On March 1, 1805, the United States government was reeling from a never to be repeated political power play!
Digging deeper, we find Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase acquitted by the US Senate at the conclusion of his impeachment trial. No Supreme Court justice had been impeached before nor has any since.
Samuel Chase, appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court, was known as “Old Bacon Face” back in his law practicing days in Maryland. Apparently his views on the way the US should be governed differed from the opinions of President Thomas Jefferson and Chase made the mistake of expressing those opinions during cases he tried as a US circuit judge. Chase feared the Jeffersonian model would lead to “mobacracy” (his term).
Part of the angle to this story is that both Jefferson (who wrote it) and Chase were signers of the Declaration of Independence, pretty good credentials. But wait, you also get (at no extra charge!) Vice President Aaron Burr presiding over the impeachment trial by the Senate. Why is that cracked? Burr later killed Alexander Hamilton (the guy on our $10 bill) in a duel and was charged with treason!
Chase was acquitted largely because the accusations against him stemmed from his performance as a Circuit judge and not as a Supreme Court Justice. In those days, Supreme Court Justices also had to serve as Circuit judges (probably to save tax dollars and because the courts were not as busy as they are now).
Although the margin of acquittal on each charge was large, the message to federal judges at any level was clear, no partisan speeches or bias in their courts. Chase himself knocked off his political rants and became a model of impartiality. This strict adherence to all appearances of impartiality is today taken for granted, but it finds its origins in this case.
As stated above, no other Supreme Court Justice has faced impeachment, though other federal judges have. Those trials have concerned only corruption and none of them dealt with actual performance on the bench.
A final note to avoid any misunderstandings; the Samuel Chase talked about in this article is NOT Salmon P. Chase, the former senator and governor of Ohio who also served on the US Supreme Court, and who’s picture graces the $10,000 bill, the largest bill ever printed by the US. (He was also Secretary of the Treasury.)
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you consider to be an impeachable offense? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Connolly, D. J. Grand Larceny: An Unexpurgated History Of The Supreme Court. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010.
Ely, James W., Kermit L. Hall, et al. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oxford University Press, 1992.