Samuel Chase and Judicial Supremacy

In the history of the US Supreme Court, Samuel Chase holds a singular, if dubious honor: he is, to date, the only Supreme Justice to be impeached (he was, however, ultimately acquitted by the US Senate).

The background to his impeachment is indicative of the political ferment so common  in the early days of the new republic. From Wikipedia:

President Thomas Jefferson, alarmed at the seizure of power by the judiciary through the claim of exclusive judicial review, led his party’s efforts to remove the Federalists from the bench. His allies in Congress had, shortly after his inauguration, repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, abolishing the lower courts created by the legislation and terminating their Federalist judges despite lifetime appointments; Chase, two years after the repeal in May 1803, had denounced it in his charge to a Baltimore grand jury, saying that it would “take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy[.]” Jefferson saw the attack as…an opportunity to reduce the Federalist influence on the judiciary by impeaching Chase….The House of Representatives served Chase with eight articles of impeachment in late 1804….The Jeffersonian Republicans-controlled United States Senate began the impeachment trial of Chase in early 1805, with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding and Randolph leading the prosecution.

What is perhaps even more interesting about the Chase impeachment is that, according to Robert H. Jackson‘s The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy: A Study of a Crisis in American Power Politics (Vintage, 1941), ‘the proceedings to impeach him took so wide a sweep that the whole Federalist judiciary felt itself likely to be removed if Chase was convicted. They may have been right.’

One of the members of the judiciary ‘frightened’ by the turn of events was none other than John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, who had, in 1803, presided over the famous ruling in Marbury v. Madison that had established judicial review over the legislative branch of the US Government. But, now, confronted by a tide turning against the judiciary, one underwritten by fury at they seemingly excessive power it had granted itself, he became ready to trade it away in exchange for security in the judicial office. So he ‘wrote to Chase an amazing letter proposing to scrap the whole pretension to judicial supremacy’:

I think the modern doctrine of impeachment should yield to an appellate jurisdiction in the legislature. A reversal of those legal opinions deemed unsound by the legislature would certainly better comport with the mildness of our character than a removal of the judge who has rendered them unknowing of his fault.  [From: Albert J. Beveridge, Life of Marshall, Houghton-Mifflin, Vol III, p. 177]

As Jackson notes, ‘this certainly indicates no strong confidence that judicial judgment was to be final.’ (Chase’s impeachment was not on legal or ethical grounds but on the basis of ‘judicial performance.’) Fortunately for Marshall (and future versions of the Supreme Court) the impeachment failed–in part because some senators refused to indict Chase on the grounds that the quality of his jurisprudence was adequate grounds for removal–and the Marshall doctrine of judicial supremacy and the judicial independence became enshrined in US law.

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