Articles of Impeachment against Justice Chase

(Passages emphasizing Republican notions of the proper role of the judge in politics and the courtroom are marked in red. See Whittington, "Reconstructing the Federal Judiciary.")


Source: William H. Rehnquist, Grand Inquests (William Morrow & Co., 1992)

Article I: Charges in connection with the 1800 treason trial of John Fries (vote failed, 16 yea to 18 nay). In particular, the article charged that Chase "did, in his judicial capacity, conduct himself in a manner highly arbitrary, oppressive, and unjust, viz.

  1. "In delivering an opinion, in writing, on the question of law, on the construction of which the defense of the accused materially depended, tending to prejudice the minds of the jury against the case of the said John Fries, the prisoner, before counsel had been heard in his defence;
  2. "In restricting the counsel for the said Fries from recurring to such English authority as they believed apposite, or from citing certain statutes of the United States, which they deemed illustrative of the positions, upon which they intended to rest the defense of their client;
  3. "In debarring the prisoner from his constitutional privilege of addressing the jury (through his counsel) on the law, as well as on the facts, which was to determine his guilt, or innocence, and at the same time endeavoring to wrest from the jury their indisputable right to hear argument, and determine upon the question of law, as well as the question of fact, involved in the verdict which they were required to give. . . . "

Article II: Chase's seating of John Basset as a juror at the Callender trial, despite Basset's statement in court that he had made up his mind that Callender's language defamed Adams (vote was 10-24).

Article III: Exclusion of the testimony of Col. John Taylor at Callender trial, on the ground that Taylor's testimony was to be used to prove the truth of some but not all of the Callender book's alleged libels against Adams (18-16, less than the required 2/3 vote to convict).

Article IV: Other charges relating to the Callender trial (see below) (18-16).

Article V: Alleged failures to follow Virgina law in Callender trial (see below) (0-34).

Article VI: Other alleged failures to follow Virgina law in Callender trial (4-30).

Article VII: Concerning grand jury proceedings in New Castle, Del. (10-24). The articles charged that Chase

  • "... did descend from the dignity of a judge and stooped to the level an informer, by refusing to discharge the grand jury, although entreated by several of the said jurors so to do; and after the said grand jury had regularly declared, through their foreman, that they had found no bills of indictment, nor had any presentments to make, by observing to the said grand jury, that he, the said Samuel Chase, understood 'that a highly seditious temper had manifested itself in the state of Delaware, among a certain class of people, particularly in New Castle County, and more especially in the town of Wilmington, where lived a most seditious printer, unrestrained by any principle of virtue, and regardless of social order -- that the name of this printer was' -- but checking himself, as if sensible of the indecorum which he was committing, added, 'that it might be assuming too much to mention the name of this person, but it becomes your duty, Gentlemen, to inquire diligently into this matter.' ... The said Samuel Chase did, moreover, authoritatively enjoin on the District Attorney of the United States the necessity of procuring a file of the papers to which he alluded. ... And, by a strict examination of them, to find some passage which might furnish the ground-work of a prosecution against the printer of the said paper. ..."

Article VIII: Concerning Chase's charge to Baltimore grand jury in 1803 (19-15) [ see below for a quotation from Chase's remarks ]:

  • "The said Samuel Chase, disregarding the duties and dignity of his judicial character, did, at a circuit court, for the District of Maryland, held in Baltimore, in the month of May, 1803, pervert his official right and duty to address the grand jury then and there assembled, on the matters coming within the province of the said jury, for the purpose of delivering to the said grand jury an intemperate and inflammatory political harangue, with intent to excite the fears and resentment of the grand jury, and of the good people of Maryland against their state government, and constitution, a conduct highly censurable in any, but peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in a judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. ... And ... that the said Samuel Chase ... did, in a manner highly unwarrantable, endeavor to excite the odium of the said grand jury, and of the good people of Maryland, against the government of the United States, by delivering opinions which ... were at that time and as delivered by him, highly indecent, extra-judicial, intending to prostitute the high judicial character with which he was invested, to the low purpose of an electioneering partizan."


Specific charges concerning the Callender trial (Rehnquist, p. 76-78), not clear how to allocate among the above articles:

  • Chase failed to correctly apply Va law dealing with the prosecution of a misdemeanor -- Callender should not have been tried in the same term of court in which he was indicted, but rather in the next term.
  • Chase improperly refused to grant Callender's lawyers a continuance until the following term so they could assemble needed witnesses (from distant states) and documents.
  • Chase required the defense to put questions to Taylor in writing, to be examined in advance by the Court, rather than allowing them to be asked extemporaneously.
  • Repeatedly interrupted and harassed Callender defense in their presentation.


Chase's remarks to the Baltimore grand jury, 1803:

You know, gentlemen, that our state and national institutions were framed to secure to every member of the society equal liberty and equal rights; but the late alteration of the federal judiciary, by the abolition of the office of the sixteen circuit court judges, and the recent change in our state constitution by the establishment of universal suffrage, and the further alteration that is contemplated in our state judiciary, (if adopted) will in my judgment take away all security for property and personal liberty. The independence of the national judiciary is already shaken to its foundation; and the virtue of the people alone can restore it. The independence of the judges of this state will be entirely destroyed, if the bill for abolishing the two supreme courts, should be ratified by the next general assembly. The change of the state constitution by allowing universal suffrage, will in my opinion certainly and rapidly destroy all protection to property, and all security to liberty; and our republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy, the worst of all possible governments.