November 30, 1804 – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase Goes on Trial for Impeachment

Samuel Chase, born in Maryland in 1741, studied law in Annapolis and was admitted to the bar in 1761. In 1762, he was expelled from the Forensic Club, an Annapolis debating society, for “extremely irregular and indecent” behavior (which turns out to have involved unkind comments employing “impious language” to fellow members). Nevertheless, two years later he was elected to the Maryland General Assembly where he served for twenty years.

From 1774 to 1776, Chase was a member of the Annapolis Convention; represented Maryland at the Continental Congress; was re-elected in 1776; and signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He remained in the Continental Congress until 1778. Once again, however, he got into trouble, this time by using insider information gained through his position in Congress to try to corner the market for flour. According to his biography, he had a “burning desire for wealth and [by such means] a secure place within the gentry.” But this desire often led to unwise financial speculations. He did not get returned to the Continental Congress.

There must have been a dearth of untainted men to serve the public, however, because in 1788, Chase was appointed Chief Justice of the District Criminal Court in Baltimore and served until 1796. In 1791, he became Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court, again serving until 1796. On January 26, 1796, President George Washington appointed Chase as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Chase served on the Court until his death on June 19, 1811.

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Samuel Chase, In office January 27, 1796 – June 19, 1811

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Samuel Chase, In office January 27, 1796 – June 19, 1811

President Thomas Jefferson tried to have Chase impeached, as part of Jefferson’s plan to reduce Federalist influence on the Supreme Court. The eight articles of impeachment served on Chase all related to Chase’s work as a trial judge in lower circuit courts. (In that era, Supreme Court justices had the added duty of serving as individuals on circuit courts, a practice that was ended in the late 19th century.) The U.S. Senate, controlled by Jeffersonian Republicans, began the impeachment trial of Chase in early 1805, with Jefferson’s relative John Randolph of Virginia leading the prosecution.

The heart of the allegations was that political bias had informed Chase’s behavior. Chase argued that his actions were, on the contrary, motivated by adherence to precedent, judicial duty to restrain advocates from improper statements of law, and considerations of judicial efficiency.

The Senate voted to acquit Chase of all charges on March 1, 1805. He is the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to have been impeached.

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