Can justices on the Supreme Court be impeached? New look at Jefferson v. Chase

Supreme Court justices, such as Samuel Chase, had manipulated legal decisions to serve political ends. And got away with it.Supreme Court justices, such as Samuel Chase, had manipulated legal decisions to serve political ends. And got away with it.

Supreme Court justices, at least Samuel Chase, had been active campaigners and had manipulated legal decisions to serve political ends. And gotten away with it.

It is now widely accepted that federal judges don’t participate in political campaigns or that only criminal acts—not policy disagreements—warrant impeachment. Trickier to institute in practice yet preached by those across the ideological spectrum is that judges don’t manipulate legal decisions to political ends.

Our nation’s earliest citizens did not necessarily share these assumptions. New findings by Mel Laracey in the Journal of Supreme Court History, which challenge the prevailing notion of the 1805 impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase, allow us to revisit how these democratic norms developed.

A Federalist, Chase had imposed heavy penalties—including death—on Democratic-Republicans (hereafter “Republicans”) after allegedly biased trials for sedition. He had also openly campaigned in the 1800 election for John Adams, another Federalist, so much that he delayed the start of the judicial term. And preceding his impeachment, Chase in May 1803 gave “an outrageously anti-Republican” charge to a Baltimore grand jury. At least that was the Republican perspective. In contrast, Chase claimed that the real issue was that he was a Federalist on a Federalist-controlled Supreme Court, which a Republican president (Thomas Jefferson) and a Republican House of Representatives wanted to undermine in any way possible.

Historians have largely narrated that Chase did not publicly defend himself, and Jefferson likewise lost interest. Given that framing this episode seems relatively uncontroversial in 1805 and certainly in 2016. But Mel Laracey asserts that hitherto unstudied documents tell a different story. Newly studied, yet highly pertinent, newspapers clippings show that Chase did defend himself against impeachment with a harshness that would shock by today’s standards for judges. An analysis of Jefferson’s presidential newspaper, the National Intelligencer, shows he never lost interest in impeaching Chase. Laracey argues that these new findings reveal “one of the greatest public fights” between two government branches in the nation’s history.

First, Laracey’s findings suggest that “never since has a Supreme Court Justice acted in such a public and aggressive manner” against elected officials. In a long “overlooked” submission to the National Intelligencer, Chase insinuated that he feared a time when:

[A] majority of Congress, inflamed by party spirit, and seeking the destruction of its opponent, shall desire to criminate a judge, in order to heap odium on the party with which he is connected; when a President, at the head of this majority, and guiding its passions, shall desire, from motives of private resentment, the ruin of any judge; when the schemes of the dominant party or of its leaders, may require the removal of all firm upright and independent judges, and substitution of others more complying or more timid.

As for the specific charges against him, Chase claimed that only “when Republicans were confident of majorities in both Houses, had those complaints been revived to provide the basis for his impeachment and removal.”

In contrast, Republicans at that time believed that “judges should hold views that were consistent with the American people’s as a whole.” Even the judicial branch should reflect popular sovereignty in the Republican view – not just the elected executive and legislative branches. Accordingly, Republicans justified impeachment, “whenever any official, but particularly a judge, [was] somehow seriously harming the nation” with his political views, even if he had not committed any criminal offense.

On December 7, 1804, as soon Congress began addressing the impeachment, the National Intelligencer—which again Jefferson founded to disseminate his views—devoted its whole front page to covering the debate in the House of Representatives on the articles of impeachment against Chase. The paper followed up with further coverage in nearly every single one of its issues from December through August of the following year. As Laracey concludes, the “in-depth, months-long coverage” of the episode in Jefferson’s presidential paper “contradicts the notion” that Jefferson and his Republican allies had become disengaged in the process.

Ultimately however, Chase would calm down his rhetoric in an appeal to Republicans and remain on the bench. But beyond the actual standards for justices that emerged from the Chase impeachment, it is important to understand their actual context. Supreme Court justices, at least Samuel Chase, had been active in politics and had manipulated legal decisions to serve political ends. And gotten away with it. Jefferson did not lose interest in Chase’s impeachment, which makes the Republican acquittal that much more significant.

Andrew Hamm is the blog manager of SCOTUSblog, where he has worked in different capacities since July 2013. He graduated with a degree in Anthropology from Harvard University in 2012. Andrew may be reached at

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Supreme Court

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