History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Sedition Act Trials — Historical Background and Documents

Samuel Chase (1741–1811)
Supreme Court justice and presiding judge in the Cooper and Callender trials

Justice Samuel Chase was the most controversial judge in the Sedition Act trials and became the target of Republican accusations about the politicization of the federal bench. Chase’s domineering and even arrogant manner provoked conflicts throughout his career and often overshadowed his formidable and original legal mind. His impeachment in 1804 marked the high point in partisan conflicts over the judiciary in the early years of the nation.

Chase was born in Somerset County, Maryland, and studied law in Annapolis. He became a strong defender of colonial rights in the years leading up to the Revolution, and as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Chase signed the Declaration of Independence. At the Maryland ratification convention in 1788, Chase voted against acceptance of the proposed Federal Constitution, but by the mid-1790s he was a committed Federalist. In 1795, after several years as chief judge on the Maryland General Court, Chase was appointed justice of the Supreme Court of the United States by George Washington.

Chase was one of the most influential justices on the early Supreme Court and helped to define the scope of federal judicial authority. His circuit court ruling that the federal courts had no jurisdiction over common-law crimes was not affirmed by the Supreme Court until 1812, but it convinced members of Congress to introduce a sedition bill to establish federal jurisdiction over the traditional common-law crime of seditious libel.

In the spring of 1800, when the judiciary was at the center of partisan conflicts, Chase inflamed Republicans with his abrasive personality and his aggressive intervention in trials. As circuit justice presiding in the trial of Thomas Cooper, Justice Chase offered the jury arguments in favor of Cooper’s conviction. A month later he presided over the retrial of John Fries, leader of an anti-tax insurrection, and so restricted the conduct of the defense attorneys that they quit the case. In the circuit court for Delaware, Chase coerced the district attorney and the grand jury into considering an indictment of a Republican printer he suspected of seditious libel. During the Callender trial, Chase barred the key defense witness and made it virtually impossible for the defense lawyers to establish the truth of Callender’s writings.

Chase openly campaigned for the reelection of John Adams in 1800, and when the presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives, he prevailed upon members of Congress to vote against Jefferson. After Chase used a grand jury charge to denounce Republicans for the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, Jefferson suggested that Congress consider impeachment. The House of Representatives impeached Chase in March 1804, citing the partisan grand jury charge, Chase’s conduct in the trials of Fries and Callender, and his actions in Delaware when he “did descend from the dignity of a judge and stoop to the level of an informer.” The only Supreme Court justice to be impeached, Chase was acquitted in the Senate trial. The closely watched proceedings, however, marked the end of such openly partisan behavior on the part of federal judges as well as the end of the brief Republican effort to remove unsympathetic judges.


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