Impeached in America: John Pickering

New Hampshire District Court Judge John Pickering was not the first public official to be impeached. (That honor belongs to William Blount.) But Pickering was the first to be convicted by the Senate and removed from office. His crime? Leaving aside all the legalize involved it appears to be that he was pretty much always rip roaringly drunk.

John Pickering

Pickering was a lawyer, a Harvard graduate, who after some time in private practice held numerous high positions in his home state. He was a member of New Hampshire’s constitutional conventions, served in both the state House and Senate and was president of New Hampshire (the equivalent of governor) in 1790. After spending the next five years as Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court of Judicature, he was nominated by George Washington to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire. 

Things started heading south shortly thereafter. In 1801, court staff urged that he be replaced because he was showing signs of mental deterioration. A year later a court clerk reported that Judge Pickering “exhibited every mark of intoxication; staggered and reeled, spoke in a thick way.” Pickering himself advised one attorney arguing his case “I shall be sober in the morning; I’m damned drunk now.”

One notable case that came before Pickering involved a ship called the Eliza that was confiscated by customs officials. The owner of the Eliza was a friend of Pickering’s and a fellow Federalist. Pickering immediately ordered the ship to be restored to its owner. Upon appeal the prosecutor noted the volume of revenue due the state. Pickering retorted, “damn the revenue, I get but a thousand dollars of it.”

By 1803, Thomas Jefferson, having failed to get Pickering to resign, sent information to the House of Representatives accusing Pickering of unlawful rulings, bad character and intoxication. The articles of impeachment that were passed by the House started: “That whereas for the due faithful, and impartial administration of justice, temperance and sobriety are essential qualities in the character of a judge, yet the said John Pickering, being a man of loose morals and intemperate habits…did appear on the bench of the said court for the administration of justice in a state of total intoxication.”

When the impeachment charges came to the Senate in 1804, Pickering was a no show. His son Jacob S. Pickering explained, “John Pickering is insane and could not, from the state of his health, attend without endangering his life, and therefore prays a postponement of the trial.” Jacob’s petition went on to explain “said crimes wherewith the said John stands charged…the said John was, and for more than two years before, and ever since has been and now is insane, his mind wholly deranged…” (National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, April 9, 1804).

So let’s get this straight. Pickering’s defense was arguing that he should NOT be removed from his position as district court judge because he was insane!

The Senate wasn’t buying it. He was convicted with a 19-7 vote and removed from office. He passed away a year later. 

Who voted against conviction and why? There were Federalists that made the argument that showing up in court drunk didn’t constitute a “high crime or misdemeanor” as specified in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. So the legal debate that Pickering’s impeachment and trial raises is whether bad character is sufficient grounds for impeachment and conviction. All successive impeachments have involved more substantial crimes (like inciting an insurrection). Surely if bad character alone could get you tossed, Trump should have been KO’d twice and one can make the case that Clinton was essentially impeached for bad character.

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