In 1805, Congress tried to remove Samuel Chase from the bench
By Gillian Brockell for The Washington Post
September 16, 2019
Calls to impeach Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh came from at least four Democratic presidential candidates over the weekend as the New York Times revealed a third alleged incident of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was a young man.
If the House voted for an impeachment trial, Kavanaugh wouldn’t have a lot of company in the ranks of justices past. Only one other justice has ever been impeached, and it was more than 200 years ago.
Samuel Chase was a frequent subject of the rumor mill for his entire life. As a young lawyer in Annapolis, Md., in the 1760s, he was expelled from a debating society for “extremely irregular and indecent” behavior. He was also an early critic of the Stamp Act and headed up Anne Arundel County’s chapter of the Sons of Liberty.
His height and broadness added to his gruff and intimidating personality. He also had a reddish-brown complexion, earning him the nickname “Old Bacon Face” — which some might consider its own impeachable offense.
In 1776, Chase signed the Declaration of Independence representing Maryland. By the 1780s, he had moved to Baltimore, where he rose through the ranks as a judge.
President George Washington nominated Chase to the Supreme Court in 1796. At the time, though, the highest court in the land had little to do, so justices still served on lower courts.
And those lower courts are where Chase’s problems arose.
While presiding over the 1800 sedition trial of Thomas Cooper, Chase railed against Cooper during his instructions to the jury, seeming to act more as a prosecutor than a judge.
Before a treason trial in Philadelphia, he showed defense attorneys his opinion before the trial had even taken place. He later sentenced the man to death. (President John Adams pardoned him.)
At a sedition trial in Richmond, he sat a juror who said he had already made up his mind that the defendant was guilty.
And while presiding over a grand jury in Delaware, Chase angrily refused to dismiss a grand jury after it declined to charge a man with sedition.
Later that same year, he campaigned for Adams’s reelection — an overtly partisan move that raised the ire of Democratic Republicans and their victorious candidate, Thomas Jefferson.
n a 2003 speech, former chief justice William H. Rehnquist put it like this: “Chase was one of those people who are intelligent and learned, but seriously lacking in judicial temperament.”
Once they had the reins of power, the Democratic Republicans overturned a law that had created lower courts in a bid to limit the power of Federalist judges installed by Adams.
But that didn’t stop Chase. In 1803, before a Baltimore jury, Chase denounced the Democratic Republicans for overturning the law.
When Jefferson found out about it, he sent a letter to a congressman friend strongly suggesting that — cough cough, hint hint — only Congress could do something about Chase.
The next year, the House voted 73-32 to impeach him, charging that he “tend[ed] to prostitute the high judicial character with which he was invested.”
The Senate trial took place in February 1805. Over 10 days, senators heard from more than 50 witnesses, according to Rehnquist. Chase maintained that he could not be impeached for poor judgment, but only indictable offenses.
Two-thirds majorities were needed to convict on each of the eight articles of impeachment. If the votes had gone strictly down party lines, Democratic Republicans would have had more than enough; at the time, they dominated the Senate 25 to nine, according to the Senate Historical Office.
But that isn’t how the votes went. Though majorities found Chase guilty on three of the eight articles, none passed the two-thirds threshold.
Old Bacon Face had dodged the frying pan.
And a precedent had been set, Rehnquist said, that “a judge’s judicial acts may not serve as a basis for impeachment.”
In more than 220 years, only eight federal judges have been removed from office via impeachment, according to House records — all for serious charges outside of court proceedings, such as perjury, tax evasion and, in one case, joining the Confederacy.