This Day in History: Samuel Chase, the only Supreme Court Justice to be impeached

On this day in 1741, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence is born. He would later be appointed a Supreme Court Justice by none other than George Washington. Would you believe that a Washington appointee and a Declaration signer was later impeached?!

Samuel Chase remains the first and only Supreme Court Justice to be put through that process.

Chase was the son of a clergyman, born in Maryland. He studied law, but soon threw himself into the Patriot cause. He helped lead a local Sons of Liberty chapter. He served on the Committee of Correspondence and in the Continental Congress. He advocated for the Declaration of Independence and had the privilege of signing it.

But after the war, Chase became a firm opponent of the Constitution. Oddly, despite his anti-Federalist stance in 1788, he was a rather staunch Federalist by the mid-1790s. By 1796, Washington would appoint him to the Supreme Court.

Shortly after Chase was appointed, the Quasi-War with France broke out, leading to an intense political debate between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Federalists feared that criticism of the government undermined its position against France. Thus, the Federalist-controlled Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1798. That law made it illegal to publish “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States . . . with intent to defame the said government . . . .”

Democratic-Republicans charged that the law was unconstitutional, but Federalists stood their ground—even a Federalist judge like Chase.

Chase presided over a few controversial sedition and treason cases during this period, and many Democratic-Republicans were unhappy with his conduct. He made questionable remarks before juries. He passed out statements of law that bordered on a “prejudged opinion,” as one set of defense lawyers alleged. He refused to let in defense witnesses, and he would not let a jury consider the constitutionality of the Sedition Act. Matters came to a head after Thomas Jefferson’s election. Jefferson encouraged impeachment. Eight articles of impeachment were approved by the House in 1804. The Senate trial began in early 1805.

Interestingly, Vice President Aaron Burr presided over the trial, despite the fact that murder charges (for Alexander Hamilton) were then hanging over him.

The trial turned into an inquiry about the meaning of impeachment. Could the Senate convict someone simply because it wanted to replace him? Was the investigation a civil one or a criminal one? One of Chase’s defense lawyers noted: “[I]f a judge is forever to be exposed to prosecutions and impeachments for his official conduct, on the mere suggestions of caprice and to be condemned by the mere voice of prejudice . . . can he hold that firm and steady hand his high functions require?”

In the end, as one historian summarizes, the Senate came to the conclusion that the “integrity of the whole National Judicial establishment was in peril, and that impeachment was being used as a partisan method of placing the National Bench under the rod of a political party.” Chase was acquitted.

The ramifications of the acquittal were far-reaching. The possibility of an impeachment purely for political purposes was much reduced. Moreover, Chief Justice John Marshall was strengthened by the decision. If Chase had been convicted, then he was probably next in line for a partisan impeachment. On the other side, however, judges improved, too. They seemed to be working harder to stick to judicial matters, without political lectures from the bench.

And, since that time, no other Supreme Court Justice has been impeached.

P.S.  The political cartoon was actually created in response to a later Sedition Act (1918), but it seems appropriate to today’s topic, too.