When Republicans under Thomas Jefferson led an impeachment attack against Samuel Chase, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, the agenda was clearly political. The outcome of Chase's trial would largely determine whether the judiciary could remain independent. And the fly in Jefferson's ointment would be his own vice president, Aaron Burr, who was wanted in two states for the death of Alexander Hamilton.
Born in Princess Anne, Maryland, in 1741, Samuel Chase had served his country honorably. He held a seat in both the Maryland assembly and the Continental Congress. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Before being appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington, Chase had been chief judge of the Maryland General Court. A Federalist, Chase believed in a strong central government. But in his decisions, he also reflected a concern for the rights of individuals with due process under the law.
President Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Republicans, disliked the idea of judges being appointed for life. He feared that under such a system, the judiciary might become too powerful. And when Samuel Chase expressed Federalist opinions from the bench, Jefferson encouraged the House of Representatives to impeach him.
Chase's trial would serve as an important test case. Could a judge be impeached for expressing unpopular opinions? Or did a judge need to be guilty of crimes in order to be impeached? Jefferson was eager to have the question answered. If he could impeach Chase easily, other Federalist judges, notably Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, would probably follow.
In March, 1805, when Chase's trial began in the United States Senate, the Republicans were in control of the government. But much to their surprise, Chase kept his post, thanks largely to Vice President Aaron Burr, a Republican. Burr was wanted for the shooting of Alexander Hamilton, but he was immune from prosecution in Washington, DC. And presiding over an impeachment was his duty as vice president.
Although many senators looked upon the impeachment trial as something akin to a kangaroo court, Burr conducted the trial in a manner that was remarkable for its order and decorum. He gave Chase's lawyer, Luther Martin, the opportunity to present a complete defense of his client. In short, Burr prevented Chase from being railroaded, and in the end, Chase was acquitted.
If Jefferson was angered to find his impeachment plans foiled, Chase was relieved -- as was Chief Justice Marshall. When Aaron Burr was tried for treason two years later, Marshall would be on the bench, and Luther Martin would be Burr's attorney. Both men would remember what Aaron Burr had done for them.