The Samuel Chase Impeachment Trial
Originally an anti-Federalist opposed to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution on grounds that it deprived the states of their independence and sovereignty, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase changed his tune about the propriety of a strong central government once he saw the ANARCHY and madness wrought by the French Revolution. By the time he was seated on the nation's high court, Chase had earned a reputation for his zealous defense of the FEDERALIST PARTY and his harsh criticism of the DEMOCRATIC-REPUBLICAN PARTY.
Generally speaking, the Federalist Party favored a strong national government, promoted legislation that advanced mercantile interests, supported the creation of a national bank, and believed that the federal government should be run by the most well-educated and affluent Americans. The Democratic-Republican Party generally favored stronger and more independent state governments, promoted legislation that advanced agricultural interests, opposed the creation of a national bank, and believed that the federal government should be run as a popular democracy, with its power being directly and closely derived from everyday, average Americans.
Chase's political beliefs endeared him to the White House while Federalist JOHN ADAMS was in office. But in 1800 Democratic-Republican THOMAS JEFFERSON defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States, and his Democratic-Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress. Chase had rankled Democratic-Republicans even before Jefferson took office. The beginning of the fall term of the Supreme Court in 1800 had to be postponed several weeks until Chase finished campaigning for John Adams in Maryland.
After Jefferson took office, Chase began openly assailing the president and his policies. Chase even took to condemning the Democratic-Republicans from the bench. In reading a charge to a Baltimore GRAND JURY in May 1803, Chase unleashed what one contemporary observer called "a tirade against Democratic-Republican legislation." Dismayed that Jeffersonians in Maryland had established universal male suffrage, Chase suggested to the grand jurors that "the country … [was] headed down the road to mobocracy, the worst of all popular governments" and that, if left in power, Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans would eliminate "all security for property, and personal liberty." The "modern doctrine … that all men in a state of society are entitled to equal liberty and equal rights," Chase warned, will bring "mighty mischief upon us." Finally, Chase said that congressional Democratic-Republicans had gravely compromised the independence of the judiciary by repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801, which lame-duck Federalist lawmakers had passed to create extra federal judgeships for President Adams to fill.
When Jefferson learned of Chase's grand jury charge on May 13, 1803, he immediately wrote Joseph Nicholson, one of his party leaders in the House of Representatives, suggesting action against Chase: "Ought this seditious and official act on the principles of our Constitution, and on the proceedings of a State, to go unpunished? And to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for the necessary measures? I ask these questions for your consideration, for myself it is better that I should not interfere." Nicholson quietly alerted his Democratic-Republican colleagues as to Jefferson's suggestion. Less than a year later, on March 12, 1804, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase by a 73 to 32 margin, naming John Randolph, a cousin of Jefferson and a mercurial politician in his own right, to head the House Managers responsible for prosecuting Chase in his trial before the Senate.
The eight ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT centered on three charges. The first charge arose from Chase's remarks before the Baltimore grand jury. The second charge stemmed from his conduct in the 1800 TREASON trial of John Fries. The third charge focused on Chase's conduct in the 1800 SEDITION trial of James Callender. Together, the House managers argued, these three charges represented judicial misconduct amounting to impeachable HIGH CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Article II, Section 4 of the U.S Constitution provides that the federal judges "shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."
The least serious of the charges concerned Chase's conduct in the Fries trial. Fries was accused of treason for leading a riot over a dwelling tax in Pennsylvania in 1799. At the outset of the Fries trial, Chase had delivered a written opinion in which he defined the meaning of treason as a MATTER OF LAW, without ever hearing argument from the lawyers in the case. Fries' attorneys were flabbergasted. They withdrew from the case because, they contended, Chase's conduct had irrevocably tainted the jury pool and made a fair trial impossible. Without counsel, Fries was easily convicted. In defense of his actions, Chase told the Senate that before the jury began deliberating in the Fries case, he had instructed the jurors that they had the final word on the definition of treason and the final say on how that definition would be applied to the facts of the case.
The most serious charge concerned Chase's conduct at the Callender trial. Callender had been indicted under the provisions of the Sedition Act for publishing a book accusing John Adams of being a British toady and a monarchist. Passed in 1798 by a Federalist Congress, the Sedition Act made it a crime to speak or write in such a way as to bring the president or Congress "into contempt or disrepute." Jeffersonians viewed the act as a political tool that the Adams administration used to muzzle its opponents.
During the impeachment trial, the House Managers presented evidence that Chase had prejudged the Callender case. They offered testimony that Chase, upon first reading Callender's book, had expressed the intent to present the offending passages to a grand jury himself and obtain an indictment against the defendant. Chase admitted threatening such action but denied following through on the threat and argued that the threat by itself did not constitute a high crime or misdemeanor. The House Managers also presented evidence that Chase failed to exclude a juror from sitting on the jury, even though the juror had formed an unfavorable opinion about Callender. Chase admitted that one juror indicated having formed such an opinion, but Chase said that the same juror also said he had not formed an opinion about the specific charges against the defendant.
The trial began on February 9, 1805, and the House Managers took ten full days to present the testimony of more than 50 witnesses. Chase did not testify during the proceedings but instead read a prepared statement that attempted to refute the charges. Closing arguments started on February 20 and lasted several days. Martin Luther, one the country's most able and respected lawyers, represented Chase. Seven House Managers, led by Randolph, spoke for the prosecution. Thirty-Four senators weighed the evidence, 25 Democratic-Republicans and 9 Federalists. AARON BURR, Jefferson's vice president, presided over the proceedings. Twenty-two votes, or two-thirds of the Senate, were necessary for conviction.
On March 1, 1805, the Senate announced its verdicts. Chase was acquitted on all counts. The closest vote was 19–15 in favor of convicting Chase for his anti–Democratic-Republican remarks to the Baltimore grand jury. Contemporary observers and historians have given Martin Luther a lion's share of the credit for the acquittals. His closing argument deeply impressed the Senate with ideas that Chase was a wronged man and that the integrity and independence of the federal judiciary would be imperiled by conviction. John Randolph's closing argument, by contrast, was described as so ineffective, disorganized, shrill, and blatantly partisan that even Thomas Jefferson was alienated.
The failure of the Senate to convict allowed Chase to return to the Supreme Court and serve 6 more years as an associate justice. More importantly, the acquittal deterred the House of Representatives from using impeachment as a partisan political tool. Some historians have suggested that the Chase impeachment trial was just a TEST CASE for House Democratic-Republicans who would have pursued other impeachments more aggressively.
The Chase impeachment is also said to have left a lasting impression on Chase's friend, Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL, who spent much of his later career attempting to demonstrate that the nation's high court was separate from and even above party politics. In the final analysis, these two results represent flip sides of the same coin: one result increased the independence of the federal judiciary from interference by the legislative and executive branches, while the other result revealed the danger to that independence created by unelected federal judges who publicly attack the popular policies of democratically elected lawmakers.
Presser, Stephen B. 1991. The Original Misunderstanding: The English, the Americans, and the Dialectic of Federalist Jurisprudence. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic.
Rehnquist, William H. 1992. Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic.