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Samuel Chase served as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1796 to 1811. In 1804 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase. However, the Senate did not uphold the House's action and Chase continued to serve on the Court until his death. Chase remains the only justice who has been the subject of impeachment proceedings. Chase's decisions set several precedents for the Supreme Court, among them opinions establishing the supremacy of federal treaties over state laws and the establishment of judicial review, which is the Court's power to void legislation it deems unconstitutional, a power that makes the judiciary one of the three primary branches of the federal government (the other two branches being Congress and the president).
Known for his fiery and partisan manner, Chase was an active politician for most of his life. Before his career as a judge Chase served in the Maryland colonial and state legislatures. As a member of the Continental Congress in the 1770s, Chase was an outspoken advocate of American independence from Britain. He signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He opposed the Constitution as an Anti-Federalist (an opponent of federal government powers over the states) in the 1780s. Later, however, he became a member of the Federalist Party and as a Supreme Court justice helped establish the powers of the federal judiciary. Chase generally
favored a strong government ruled by an elite and he opposed the radical ideas of the French Revolution.
Chase was born April 17, 1741, in Somerset County, Maryland. His father, Thomas Chase, was a British-born clergyman of the Church of England. His mother, Matilda Walker Chase, died at Chase's birth. In 1744 the family moved to Baltimore where Chase grew up and received a classical education under his father's supervision. Chase studied law in Annapolis, Maryland, at the office of Attorney John Hall from 1759 until he was admitted to the bar in 1763. In 1762 Chase married Ann Baldwin. They had seven children, three of them dying in infancy. Ann died sometime between 1776 and 1779 and in 1784 Chase married Hannah Kitty Giles, with whom he had two daughters.
Chase established a successful law practice in Annapolis, the colonial capital and later the state capital of Maryland. He also became prominent in colonial politics. In 1764 he was elected to the lower house of Maryland's colonial legislature as a representative of Annapolis and by the early 1770s he had become well-known as a skillful legislator and outstanding leader, earning the nickname the Maryland Demosthenes after the ancient Greek orator and politician. He represented Maryland in the Continental Congresses from 1774 to 1778 and 1784 to 1785 and in 1778 served on as many as thirty committees in his tireless efforts to advance the cause of independence from Britain. He advocated a boycott of Britain and a political confederation of the colonies. He denounced those who opposed such policies as "despicable tools of power, emerged from obscurity and basking in proprietary sunshine." Together with Benjamin Franklin and Charles Carroll, Chase traveled in 1776 to Montreal in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Canada to join the American colonies in their revolt against England. He signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and worked for its acceptance in Maryland.
Chase helped draft the Maryland Constitution in 1776. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates for all but a year and a half between 1777 and 1788. When the U.S. Constitution came before the Maryland Convention for ratification Chase was in the minority of delegates who voted against it. He was an ardent Anti-Federalist at the time and argued that the Constitution concentrated power in the hands of the central government at the expense of the common individual. "I consider the Constitution," he wrote to a friend, "as radically defective in this essential: the bulk of the people can have nothing to say to it. The government is not a government of the people." He also argued that the Constitution failed to protect the freedom of the press and the right to trial by jury.
His opposition to the Constitution cost him his state legislative seat in 1788. The same year, Chase also went bankrupt after several of his speculative business ventures failed. These business risks had also damaged his political career, which had been plagued with charges that he used his office for personal gain. In 1778 he had been dismissed from the Continental Congress for two years for allegedly attempting to corner the flour market and profit from speculation on prices.
Dogged by bankruptcy and charges of corruption, Chase sought refuge in the position of a local judge in Baltimore County in 1788. In 1791 he was concurrently appointed chief judge of the Maryland General Court. The state assembly, upset with his behavior on the bench and his holding two positions as judge, tried unsuccessfully to remove him from both positions.
Chase might seem to have been an unlikely choice for a Supreme Court justice. However, President George Washington nominated him to the Supreme Court on January 26, 1796. Over the years Washington had been impressed by Chase's legal skills; he also admired the zeal with which Chase had worked for American independence during the Revolutionary War as well as Chase's efforts in support of Washington in the Continental Congress. James McHenry of Maryland, the secretary of war and a friend of Washington's, strongly recommended Chase to Washington. Moreover, the Supreme Court was not very powerful or prestigious at the time and it was difficult to find a lawyer who would accept a position on it. The job did not pay well and justices had to travel long distances to preside over circuit courts.
Chase took his seat on the Court on February 4, 1796. He was an Anti-Federalist at the time of the Constitution's ratification but during his tenure on the Court he became a persuasive advocate for the federal judiciary's power to review legislation. Two cases from Chase's first session on the Supreme Court—Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. (Dall.) 171, 1 L. Ed. 556, and Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (Dall.) 199, 1 L. Ed. 568, both decided in March 1796—stand out. In Hylton v. United States, the Court for the first time reviewed a law passed by Congress. Although the Court refrained from declaring its ability to void acts of Congress on constitutional grounds, its review nevertheless paved the way for Marbury v. Madison 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803), which established the right of the Court to declare laws unconstitutional. At issue in Ware v. Hylton was whether a treaty decided by the federal government could take precedence over state laws. The U.S. government had made a treaty with Great Britain following the Revolutionary War that provided for the payment of debts owed to Great Britain. The states, meanwhile, had passed their own laws on this issue, many of which enabled U.S. citizens to forgo repaying their debts to British citizens. John marshall, future chief justice of the Court, argued the case before the Court for the debtors. The Court ruled that the national treaty had precedent over state law. Of Chase's opinion in this case, constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin wrote in 1930 that it "remains to this day the most impressive assertion of the supremacy of national treaties over State laws."
In Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (Dall.) 386, 1 L. Ed. 648 (1798), Chase wrote a highly influential opinion for the Court. He defined a constitutional interpretation of ex post facto laws—that is, retroactive laws, or laws that affect matters occurring before their enactment. Chase decided that the Constitution's prohibition of such laws extended only to criminal statutes that make prior conduct a crime, not to civil statutes. Chase also set a precedent by arguing that any law "contrary to the great first principles of the social compact" must be declared void. In his opinion, Chase emphasized that the Constitution limits the ability of legislators to disturb established property rights even when it does not expressly set forth such rights. Described by Presser as the natural-law basis of the Constitution, this argument broadened the Court's ability to test the constitutionality of legislation.
In United States v. Callender, Chase's Trial 65, Whart. St. Tr. 668, 25 F. Cas. 239, No. 14, 709 (C.C. Va.) (1800), Chase further defined the powers of the Court when he ruled that a jury could not decide the constitutionality of a law:
[T]he judicial power of the United States is the only proper and competent authority to decide whether any statute made by congress
(or any of the state legislatures) is contrary to, or in violation of, the federal constitution.… I believe that it has been the general and prevailing opinion in all the Union, that the power now wished to be exercised by a jury, belongs properly to the Federal Courts.
Chase also found himself embroiled in highly publicized political controversy for his actions both on and off the bench. For example, he made partisan speeches in 1796 for John Adams, the Federalist party candidate for president, even after he had taken the position of Supreme Court justice. He also pushed for passage of the alien and sedition act, 1 Stat. 596 (1798), which outlawed "false, scandalous, and malicious" attacks on the government, the president, or Congress. The law was designed largely to discourage criticism of President Adams by the rival democratic-republican party, whose most well-known leader was Thomas Jefferson. In circuit court decisions in 1799 and 1800 Chase imposed harsh sentences on Democratic-Republicans who had published opinions critical of Adams's Federalist administration. In several cases Chase worked to keep Anti-Federalists off juries. In the case of John Fries of Pennsylvania, a strong supporter of Jefferson who had led rebellions against federal excise taxes, Chase sentenced the accused to death. President Adams subsequently set aside the sentence.
In 1800 the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., changed when Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency of the United States. In 1803 Chase got into trouble with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans when he severely criticized their policies in front of a Baltimore grand jury. Chase explained that he objected to recent changes in Maryland law that gave more men the privilege of voting. Such changes as these advanced by Democratic-Republicans, Chase exclaimed, would
rapidly destroy all protection to property, and all security to personal liberty, and our Republican Constitution [would] sink into mobocracy, the worst of all possible governments.… The modern doctrines by our late reformers, that all men in a state of society are entitled to enjoy equal liberty and equal rights, have brought this mighty mischief upon us, and I fear that it will rapidly destroy progress, until peace and order, freedom and property shall be destroyed.
This angered Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans and in 1804 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase on charges of misconduct and bias in the Sedition cases and of seditious criticism of Jefferson in the 1803 Baltimore grand jury charge. In 1805, the Democratic-Republican–controlled U.S. Senate moved to impeach Chase. Democratic-Republican senators charged that Chase had been guilty of judicial misconduct and that his partisan acts showed that he lacked political objectivity. Federalists defending Chase argued that he had committed no crime and that he could not be convicted under the constitutional definition of high crimes and misdemeanors. The Senate failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Chase and he remained on the Court until his death.
Chase's acquittal set an important precedent for the Court—no Supreme Court justice could be removed simply because of his or her political beliefs. The failure to impeach Chase allowed Chief Justice Marshall to assert and define the powers of the Court in future decisions with more confidence. It was thus a step in the process of defining the independence of the Supreme Court as one of the three primary branches of U.S. government.
Chase avoided controversy in his subsequent work on the Court. His near impeachment served as a warning both to him and to other justices to be careful in their choice of words while in office. As Chase suffered in later years from declining health, Marshall became the most vocal justice and assumed Chase's position as the lightning rod for the Court.
Chase died June 19, 1811, in Baltimore. He was interred in St. Paul's Cemetery.
Dilliard, Irving. 1969. "Samuel Chase." In The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions, ed. Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. New York: Chelsea House.
Haw, James. 1993. "Samuel Chase." In The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993, ed. Claire Cushman. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.