What type of misbehavior rises to the level of impeachment charges and trials in Congress? The first three impeachment proceedings under the Constitution yielded different results as lawmakers debated questions that remain with us today.
The initial three proceedings showed that the generation following the Constitutional founding actively debated the meaning of “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” particularly what kind of non-criminal misbehavior rises to the level of an impeachable offense.
They focused on accusations against a Senator of improper interactions to benefit a foreign government, a federal judge who behaved badly on the bench, and a Supreme Court Justice accused on mishandling trials and insulting the President’s agenda.
Three parts of the Constitution address the impeachment process, or bringing charges against a civil officer, in Congress. Article I, Section 2 says the House of Representative has the “sole power of impeachment.” Article II, Section 4 defines who can be impeached: the “President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States.” It also defines the grounds for impeachment, which are limited to “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” And Article I, Section 3 gives the Senate of role of holding trials in impeachment cases, with a two-thirds majority vote required for conviction.
Within a decade of the Constitution’s ratification, Congress faced its first impeachment proceedings, and they were against William Blount, one of the delegates who attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Blount said little in the 1787 debates and was absent for a month as a delegate from North Carolina.
In 1797, the House impeached Blount, now a United State Senator, after a letter was discovered indicating his involvement in a scheme to help Great Britain, a foreign government, acquire land in Spanish Florida and Louisiana. The House of Representatives decided Blount, as a Senator, was a civil officer and subject to impeachment. The Senate expelled Blount before his impeachment trial started. The Senate held the trial anyway and its members defeated a motion that declared Blount could be impeached in a 14-11 vote.
Since the Senators did not all explain why they voted against the motion, the failure to convict and remove Blount from office left it unclear if the majority felt Blount could not be impeached because he was a Senator, because the Senate lacked jurisdiction after Blount’s expulsion, or if the charges did not met the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The debate over high crimes and misdemeanors played a role in the second impeachment proceedings considered by Congress. In 1803, the House impeached federal judge John Pickering of New Hampshire, who was accused of mishandling a trial, intoxication on the bench and using profane language in court. At Pickering’s Senate trial, the Senate debated if acts of bad behavior or claims that Pickering was insane where high crimes and other misdemeanors. After a spirited discussion, the Senate convicted Pickering, but not after several members left the proceedings because they did not believe the charges met the “high crimes and other misdemeanors” standard.
Jonathan Dayton, who had also been a delegate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, spoke about the high crimes and misdemeanors question. As recorded in Hinds Precedents, Dayton said he “believed the respondent guilty of most of the facts stated in the articles, but, considering the deranged state of intellect of that unfortunate man, he could not declare him guilty in the words of the Constitution; he could not vote it a conviction under the impeachment.”
Samuel White of Delaware agreed with Dayton. “It would not hereafter be necessary that a man should be guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors in order to render him liable to removal from office by impeachment, but a conviction upon any facts stated in articles exhibited against him would be sufficient,” White said.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Chase’s high-profile impeachment and trial closely followed the Pickering trial. The Chase impeachment and trial would bring the definition of an impeachment offense more fully into focus.
Justice Chase was an ardent Federalist who vocally opposed President Thomas Jefferson. Chase upset the Jeffersonian Republicans when he spoke at a Baltimore grand jury proceeding, where he condemned Jefferson’s efforts to eliminate Federalist judge positions. Impeachment charges soon followed from the House, championed by Jefferson’s second cousin, John Randolph of Roanoke. The first seven claims against Chase included charges he mishandled trials. The final charge was that Chase acted in a way at the Baltimore grand jury proceeding “to prostitute the high judicial character with which he was invested to the low purpose of an electioneering partisan.”
The Senate trial did not go well for the Republicans. The formidable Luther Martin, another former Constitutional Convention delegate, represented Chase along with three other lawyers.
Martin stated that the Constitution only intended for impeachment charges to be related to accusations against a civil officer who committed an indictable crime. “The principle I have endeavored to establish is that no judge or other officer can, under the Constitution of the United States, be removed from office but by impeachment, and for the violation of some law, which violation must be not simply a crime or misdemeanor, but a high crime or misdemeanor,” Martin told the Senate.
Randolph disputed that an impeachable offense also had to be indictable. “The respondent has contravened the known law of the land and of his duty, which required him ‘to dispense justice faithfully and impartially, and without respect to persons,’” Randolph argued. “He stands charged with having sinned against this law and against his sacred oath, by acting in his judicial capacity unfaithfully, partially, and with respect to persons.”
Robert G. Harper, Martin’s co-counsel, made the final argument that mirrored Martin’s approach. “An impeachment is not a mere inquiry, in the nature of an inquest of office, whether an officer be qualified for his place, or whether some reason of policy or expediency may not demand his removal, but a criminal prosecution, for the support of which the proof of some willful violation of a known law of the land is known to be indispensably required,” Harper concluded.
The Republicans had enough votes to convict Chase, with 25-9 majority in the Senate, but Chase was acquitted on every count. With a two-thirds majority needed for conviction, only three of the eight charges received a simple majority vote. At least six Republicans voted against each count by joining with the Federalists. Since the Chase trial, no Supreme Court Justice has faced impeachment proceedings.
These proceedings and the names of William Blount, John Pickering and Samuel Chase will likely get new attention in the following weeks as the House of Representatives considers impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Scott Bomboy is editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.