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Samuel Chase Impeached

March 12, 1804

Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase, an ardent Federalist supporter, was known for his open partisanship both on and off the bench. He campaigned vigorously for John Adams in the election of 1800, and in 1803, gave a grand jury charge in the U.S. circuit court in Maryland that was sharply critical of the Republicans for repealing the 1801 judiciary statute and abolishing the circuit judgeships that act had established. The grand jury charge proved highly controversial and led many to call for Chase’s removal from the bench. In March 1804, after debating what constituted proper grounds for impeachment, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase. The Maryland grand jury charge formed the basis for one of the eight articles of impeachment because of its allegedly seditious intent, while most of the others focused on allegedly improper behavior during politically charged trials such as the Sedition Act prosecutions. During his twenty-two day trial before the Senate, Chase argued that he could not be impeached for errors in judgment or improper behavior on the bench, but rather only for an indictable offense. On March 1, 1805, the Senate acquitted Chase when none of the eight articles of impeachment secured the votes of two-thirds of the members as was required for conviction. Chase’s impeachment helped to set the parameters of what kinds of conduct would warrant a judge’s removal from the bench. Although there had been one earlier judicial impeachment, involving John Pickering of New Hampshire, it was such a clear case of disability that it was not very useful as a precedent. Chase’s acquittal served as a tacit victory for his position that an indictable offense was required to meet the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard for the impeachment and conviction of a federal judge. More than two centuries later, only eight federal judges have been removed by impeachment. In the twentieth century, Congress examined proposals for the removal of federal judges whose conduct did not rise to the level required for impeachment, but none was enacted, due in large part to doubts about the constitutionality of such a measure.