Today in 1804, the Jeffersonian Republican-controlled United States Senate appointed a committee to plan the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.

A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Chase had been impeached by the House of Representatives for his role in the Sedition Act Crisis of 1798-1799. In 1798, Congress passed an act that made it a criminal offense to criticize the President of the United States and members of Congress.

During that time, Chase acted as a Federalist partisan, boasting that he put all his energies into reprimanding critics of John Adams. During trials, he openly lambasted defense councils and refused to allow evidence which would tend to give the defendants credence. Chase acted most egregiously in two trials, those of John Fries and famous Jeffersonian polemicist James Callender. Behaving in a highly prejudiced manner, he did whatever was possible to guarantee convictions under the controversial law.

After the Jeffersonians successfully repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which packed the federal courts with Federalists and established new courts, Chase condemned the reversal. According to Chase, the Jeffersonians had made the country “sink into a mobocracy, the worst of all governments,” where “freedom and property shall be destroyed.”

In the House, Virginia Representative John Randolph of Roanoke assumed the task of impeaching Chase, deeming him “intemperate and inflammatory…indecent and unbecoming….highly unwarrantable” for his role in the prosecutions. Represented by famous Marylander and prominent lawyer Luther Martin, Chase escaped conviction in the Senate. A majority voted guilty on three of the eight articles, but each article fell short of the two-thirds required for conviction.

The episode convinced Jefferson that the impeachment device was insufficient, as Chase’s case seemed the consummate circumstance for removal. Exasperated, Jefferson lamented that “impeachment is a farce which will not be tried again.”

If Chase could not be removed for bad behavior, he reasoned, no judge ever could.

Dave Benner

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