1805 Chase Not Guilty in Impeachment Trial


The Jefferson Administration attempted to counter the power of the Supreme Court by impeaching judges. The first target was a New Hampshire Federalist, who was impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. In 1803, the House of Representatives began an impeachment trial against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. The House of Representatives, which was firmly controlled by the Jeffersonian Republicans, voted for impeachment. The Senate was chaired by Vice President Aaron Burr. During the trial, it was established that the only offenses that were impeachable were those indictable as crimes against the United States. Chase was found not guilty. This ended Jefferson's assault against the independent judiciary

President Jefferson was unhappy with the growing power of the Supreme Court, especially its claim that the judiciary had the exclusive power to determine whether a law was constitutional. Since Adams had appointed many Federalist to the courts Jefferson was determined to dilute their influence and remove as many as possible from the bench.

Samuel Chase had been appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court in 1796. He naturally opposed Jefferson's attempt to curtail the power of the courts, speaking out against the repeal of the Judiciary Act in a charge to grand jury. Jefferson was angered by the outburst and wrote to Congressman Hopper Nicholson asking, about the seditious and official attack by Chase on the principles of our constitution go unpublished.

Jefferson allies in Congress responded when the House of Representatives impeached Chase on eight counts. The first count was his handling of the trail of John Fries; six of the counts related to various actions at other trials and finally one claimed he did not have the temperament to be a judge.

Once the House had voted to Impeach it was up to the Senate of either convict or finding Chase not guilty. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to find Chase not guilty. Event those who opposed the Federalist voted against the articles of Impeachment, believing that a judge should not be impeached for poor judicial decisions- he should be impeached only for illegal or unethical conduct. The impeachment of Judge Chase was the only time a Supreme Court Judge was never again impeached. The failure to convict Chase became a key factor that insured greater judicial independence.