The one and only Supreme Court justice to be impeached was a guy known to his compatriots as Old Bacon Face. Some say Samuel Chase’s unsavory nickname was a result of his reddish-brown complexion. Others say it was a result of his temperament, as he was always prepared to sizzle with indignation.
Chase was an Annapolis, Md., based lawyer who was a member of the Annapolis Convention and represented Maryland at the Continental Congress. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
But Old Bacon Face’s career was not without some bumps in the road. As early as 1862, one year after he was admitted to the bar, Chase got tossed out of an Annapolis debating club, the Forensic Club for “extremely irregular and indecent” behavior. That behavior apparently involved addressing some comments to a fellow member that were deemed “impious.”
Chase was a member of the Continental Congress, at least until 1878 when he was accused of using insider information gained as a member of the Congress to try to corner the flour market. He was part of the group that drafted Maryland’s Constitution, but when the U.S. Constitution came before the Maryland legislature for ratification, he voted against it out of distrust of central government. Around that same time Chase went bankrupt after some speculative business ventures failed.
None of this bothered George Washington enough to keep him from nominating Chase to the Supreme Court in 1796. Chase, by this time a Federalist, was a distinctly partisan Supreme Court justice. While on the bench he actively campaigned for John Adams.
So as you might imagine, when the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalist John Adams in the 1800 election, Chase fell out of favor. The feeling was mutual. It was Jefferson who initiated the effort to impeach Chase and in 1804, by a vote of 73-32, the House approved eight articles of impeachment against Samuel Chase. The articles of impeachment broadly focused on poor judgement on the part of Chase and on making judicial decisions based on partisan politics. At the time, Supreme Court justices also served as circuit court judges and it was Chase’s actions in these cases that were cited. In one case involving the charging of a Baltimore grand jury, Chase’s comments were characterized as “intemperate and inflammatory, peculiarly indecent and unbecoming, highly unwarrantable, highly indecent,” One of the articles of impeachment accused Chase of “tending to prostitute the high judicial character with which he was invested, to the low purpose of an electioneering partizan.”
When Chase’s impeachment came before the Senate, his defense was that he could not be removed for errors of judgement or behavior on the bench, neither of which was an indictable offense nor a high crime or misdemeanor, which is what the Constitution defined as grounds for impeachment. Despite the fact that of the 34 senators at the time, only nine were Federalists, Chase was acquitted on each of the eight votes. The closest vote was 18-16 for removal, not the two-thirds necessary. Chase would continue as a Supreme Court justice until 1811 when he died of a heart attack.
The Chase impeachment has been cited as helping establish the independence of the judiciary. All future impeachments of federal judges have involved legal or ethical misconduct, not poor judgement or obnoxious behavior, both of which are part of Old Bacon Face’s legacy.