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Samuel Chase Impeachment: 1805

Congress Impeaches Chase

Defendant: Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase
Crime Charged: "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" within the meaning of Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution
Chief Defense Lawyers: Robert Goodloe Harper, Joseph Hopkinson, and Luther Martin
Chief Prosecutor: Trial Managers John Randolph and Caesar Rodney
Judges: The U.S. Senate, with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: February 4-March 1, 1805
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Congress for the first and only time exercised its constitutional prerogative to try a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Samuel Chase was born in Somerset County, Maryland in April of 1741. During the next 70 years, until his death in 1811, he would become one of America's most famous and controversial founding fathers.

Chase was active in politics from an early age and was elected to colonial Maryland's Assembly on the strength of his anti-English platform. He was Maryland's delegate to the Continental Congress of 1774 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was one of the signers of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. After fighting in the Revolutionary War, during which he became friends with George Washington, Chase returned to Maryland. Chase used his influence in the Federalist Party to further his judicial career, and he swiftly rose through a succession of ever more prestigious posts. Chase was appointed presiding justice of the Baltimore Criminal Court, then in 1791 he was appointed chief justice of the Maryland Court of Appeals, and finally in 1796 he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chase's Supreme Court nomination had Washington's personal backing.

From the Maryland courts to the Supreme Court, Chase was an openly Federalist judge, and he never hid his political loyalties. He zealously enforced the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts, and he supported the strict prosecution of persons involved in antigovernment demonstrations and allegedly treasonous activities. Chase presided at several trials involving supporters of his fellow founding father and presidential contender Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the candidate of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party and won the hotly contested election of 1800.

Jefferson had a series of political struggles with the Federalists, whose supporters such as Chase and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall dominated the federal judiciary. For several years, Jefferson's energies were focused on the legal issues in Marbury v. Madison (see separate entry), which ended on February 24, 1803 with Marshall's famous opinion proclaiming the doctrine of judicial review.

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