Significance: Chase was the only Supreme Court justice impeached for misconduct on the bench. During the Court's early years, he was an influential justice whose opinions established enduring constitutional interpretations.
Chase was admitted to the bar in 1761. From 1764 to 1788 he was a member of the Maryland assembly and a vigorous supporter of U.S. rights. In 1774 the assembly sent him to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where he became a prominent member, serving on thirty different committees. When Maryland instructed its delegates to vote against independence in 1776, Chase returned home and conducted a vigorous campaign that led the state to reverse its position. He returned to Philadelphia on July 1, cast the state's vote for independence, and signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1778 Chase left Congress after Alexander Hamilton denounced him for using secret information to speculate on the price of flour. Chase vigorously criticized the new Constitution during the Maryland ratifying convention in 1787 and voted against its adoption. In 1788 he had become chief judge of the Baltimore city court and in 1791 chief judge of Maryland's general court. By 1795 he had become a Federalist, supporting a strong central government. That year Chase resigned his Maryland position, accepting President George Washington's nomination to the Supreme Court
Interpreting the Constitution
During the 1790's each justice read his opinion in turn, with the most recent appointee, in this case Chase, speaking first. In several precedent-setting cases, Chase's powerfully written opinions were so persuasive that the justices who followed did little more than agree with his views. The newest justice on the bench thus became the formulator of significant constitutional doctrine. Chase's opinion in Hylton v. United States (1796) ruled that a federal tax on carriages was an excise tax, not a direct tax subject to constitutional limitations. Chase defined federal direct taxes as either poll or land taxes, a definition that held as constitutional law until overturned in an 1895 income tax ruling. In Ware v. Hylton (1796), Chase vigorously asserted the supremacy of national treaties over state laws, setting an enduring principle of constitutional law. In Calder v. Bull (1798), Chase ruled that the ex post facto clause of the Constitution applied to criminal, not civil, cases. Chase also asserted that natural law principles, even if not spelled out in the Constitution, limited legislative actions. Commentators have viewed Chase's opinion as establishing the basis for interpreting the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments as guaranteeing extensive civil rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Although Chase's opinion in Calder supports a “loose construction” of the Constitution, a circuit court opinion by Chase points toward a “strict constructionist” view. In United States v. Worrall (1798), Chase (dissenting from the opinion held by other federal judges) asserted that the federal courts did not have jurisdiction over common law crimes, but could act only when Congress passed specific legislation. The Supreme Court adopted his view in 1812.
In the early nineteenth century, Supreme Court justices were required to regularly “ride the circuit” and join lower court judges in conducting trials. A passionate supporter of the Federalist Party, Chase's domineering and highly partisan behavior when conducting politically significant trials infuriated Jeffersonian Republicans who tried to remove him from office. When presiding over the treason trial of John Fries in 1800, Chase prevented Fries's lawyers from using their planned defense. Fries had led a mob that freed a group of Pennsylvanians held by a federal marshal. His attorneys wanted to argue that the action of the mob did not meet the constitutional definition of treason levying war against the United States. When Chase prevented them from raising this issue, the lawyers withdrew. The jury convicted Fries, and Chase sentenced him to death, but President John Quincy Adams pardoned him. Chase's conduct was even more aggressive and partisan in the May, 1800, trial of James Callender for violating the Sedition Act of 1798 by his abusive criticisms of President Adams. Chase refused to excuse a juror who said he had already decided that Callender was guilty. Chase required the defense attorneys to submit in writing the questions they intended to ask their main witness, then refused to let the witness testify. At Chase's Senate trial, Chief Justice John Marshall, who had been in the audience during the Callender trial, admitted that he had never known another judge to act in this manner. Chase proceeded to interrupt and insult defense counsel until they withdrew from the case. The immediate occasion of Chase's impeachment was his charge to a Baltimore grand jury on May 2, 1803, attacking the leading ideas of the Jeffersonian Republicans. He criticized the recent adoption of universal manhood suffrage in Maryland as preparing the way for a mobocracy and asserted that the idea that “all men in a state of society are entitled to equal liberty and equal rights…will rapidly progress until peace and order, freedom and property, will be destroyed.” On March 12, 1804, the House of Representatives impeached Chase. His attorneys argued that only indictable offenses met the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” insisting that Chase had not violated any laws. All nine Federalist senators voted to acquit Chase. When six Republican senators agreed with the Federalists, the vote to convict fell four votes short of the required two-thirds majority. Most commentators view the failure to remove Chase as affirming the independence of the judiciary against partisan attack. Others disagree, arguing the lesson learned was that judges should avoid partisan behavior on the bench. After the acquittal, Chase played only a minor role on the Court, writing few opinions and deferring to Chief Justice Marshall, until his death in 1811. His decisions during the 1790's, however, established Chase as the most influential justice of the early Court.
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- Clinton, Robert, Christopher Budzisz, and Peter Renstrom, eds. The Marshall Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio, 2007.
- Ellis, Richard E. The Jeffersonian Crisis: Courts and Politics in the Young Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Harrington, Matthew P. Jay and Ellsworth, The First Courts: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2007.
- Haw, James A., Francis F. Beirne, Rosamond R. Beirne, and R. Samuel Jett. Stormy Patriot: The Life of Samuel Chase. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1980.
- Rehnquist, William H. Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. New York: William Morrow, 1992.