A Justice in Trouble

The first and only Supreme Court justice to be impeached was Samuel Chase of Maryland in 1805, and he was, in the end, acquitted.

I mentioned Chase in my column on Tuesday as one of the anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution during the battle for ratification. One of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence, Chase opposed ratification because the Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights. But once the Constitution went into effect, Chase became an ardent Federalist and, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in his account of the Chase impeachment, “brought to that commitment the intense dedication with which he held all of his beliefs.”

In 1791 Chase became chief judge of the Maryland General Court, and in 1796 he was appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington. The journey to Samuel Chase’s impeachment trial began in 1798 with the Alien and Sedition Acts, aimed at the Democratic-Republican critics of President John Adams, also a Federalist. Chase relished prosecutions of Democratic-Republican newspaper printers and even campaigned for Adams in the 1800 election.

Adams lost, of course, and in the wake of his defeat he — and the departing Federalist majority in Congress — confirmed a bevy of judges to the federal court system and reduced the size of the Supreme Court from six members to five, effective upon the next vacancy, to secure Federalist power on the courts.

When Thomas Jefferson took office, he set out to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801, which enabled Adams’s so-called midnight appointments, and remove or neutralize Federalist influence within the judiciary. Which is to say that there was almost no question that Chase would, at some point, be in the cross hairs of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party.

Chase — known as an overbearing, intemperate man — couldn’t help but give them a convenient target. In May 1803, not long after Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist, handed Jefferson a defeat in Marbury v. Madison, Chase denounced Democratic-Republican political principles and policies, including the effort to repeal the Judiciary Act, while giving instructions to a Baltimore grand jury. “The late alteration of the federal judiciary … and the recent change in our state constitution, by the establishing of universal suffrage, will take away all security for property and personal liberty … and our republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy, the worst of all popular governments.”

Chase then condemned “the modern doctrines by our late reformers, that all men, in a state of society, are entitled to enjoy equal liberty and equal rights.”

Word of Chase’s tirade made its way to Jefferson who, in the manner of Henry II, asked Democratic-Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to rid him of this turbulent justice. “Ought this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution, and on the proceedings of a State, to go unpunished?,” Jefferson wrote to Representative Joseph Nicholson of Maryland. “And to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for necessary measures? I ask these questions for your consideration, for myself it is better that I should not interfere.”

Thus began the ultimately unsuccessful effort to remove Chase from office, ostensibly for judicial misconduct, but in truth for his partisanship and his contempt for Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.

The full story of the impeachment of Samuel Chase is much more dramatic and involved than this short summary — the presiding judge at his trial was none other than Vice President Aaron Burr, on the lam from authorities in New York and New Jersey for the killing of Alexander Hamilton — but I don’t have the time to go into full detail.

Still, even this much is interesting and — as we learn more about the relationship between Justice Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow — instructive. There is precedent for scrutinizing a Supreme Court justice who has become too entangled in partisan politics while on the bench. And there is precedent for trying to remove him.

What I Wrote

My Tuesday column connected the Clarence Thomas corruption scandal to the outsize power of the modern-day Supreme Court in American political life.

My Friday column was a follow-up to Tuesday’s column, focusing on the question of Harlan Crow’s collection of Nazi trinkets and Hitler memorabilia.

And in the latest episode of my podcast on the political and military thrillers of the 1990s, we covered the 1995 action blockbuster “Die Hard With a Vengeance.”

I was also on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show on MSNBC discussing the history of the Supreme Court.

Now Reading

Dov Waxman on Israeli democracy for Dissent magazine.

Garry Wills on Clarence Thomas for The New York Review of Books.

Martha Bayne on the Chicago mayoral election for The Baffler.

Olufemi O. Taiwo on the meaning of “racial capitalism” for Hammer and Hope, a new magazine of Black politics and culture.

Rebecca Traister on abortion politics for New York magazine.

Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

I was on the train this week, on a trip to Princeton for a panel, and I spent some time gazing at the tracks from the very back of the train car. This photo, taken on my iPhone and edited a little, captures my perspective.

Now Eating: Vegetarian Tamale Pie

As you might already know if you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, I do nearly all of the cooking for my family. And when I have to go out of town for a talk or an event, I usually spend the day before prepping or making meals ahead of time, just to lighten the burden on my spouse (our kids are … rambunctious). That is all to say that I made this dish from New York Times Cooking the night before I left for Princeton, and it was great!

I made a few alterations from Melissa Clark’s recipe. For the chili, I roasted the garlic with the other vegetables and puréed it with the tomatoes. For the cornbread, I added milk to smooth out the consistency and mixed the Cheddar into the batter. I decided not to add the scallions, and chopped them up as a garnish. My wife added sliced avocado as well. This is obviously a vegetarian recipe, but I think you could make it vegan-friendly pretty easily.


For the chili:

  • 1 large red or white onion, halved

  • 2 jalapeños, halved lengthwise and seeded (if desired)

  • 1 poblano or green bell pepper, sliced in half lengthwise, seeds removed

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

  • 1¾ teaspoons kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal), plus more as needed

  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole plum or diced tomatoes

  • 3 fat garlic cloves, finely grated or minced

  • 2 tablespoons mild or hot chili powder, more as needed

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano

  • 1¾ teaspoons ground cumin

  • 3 (15-ounce) cans black or pinto beans, drained and rinsed

  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

For the cornbread

  • ¾ cup/135 grams fine cornmeal

  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)

  • 1 large egg, at room temperature

  • ⅓ cup sour cream or whole-milk yogurt, plus more for serving

  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

  • 2 teaspoons honey

  • 1 cup grated Cheddar

  • 2 scallions, whites and greens thinly sliced, plus more for serving (optional)


Prepare the chili: Move a rack as close to the heating element as possible and heat the broiler. Cover a baking sheet with foil. Finely dice half of the onion and set aside for later.

Slice remaining onion half into ½-inch-thick half-moons and arrange on the prepared baking sheet. Place jalapeños and poblano next to onions, cut sides down. Lightly brush vegetables with oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Broil 2 to 4 minutes, until vegetables are charred on one side. (If the chiles are small, they will be charred after 1 to 2 minutes.) Flip vegetables and broil until the other side is charred, 1 to 3 minutes.

Transfer pan to a rack until cool enough to handle, then stem the peppers. Transfer charred vegetables and any accumulated juices to a blender (or use a bowl and immersion blender). Add canned tomato and ¼ teaspoon salt, and blend to a coarse purée. You can make this up to 4 days ahead, and store in the refrigerator until needed.)

Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a large Dutch oven, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high. Add diced onion and sauté until lightly browned, 6 to 9 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in chili powder, oregano, remaining 1½ teaspoons salt and cumin, and cook until spices darken, about 30 seconds.

Add beans and the reserved tomato purée, and let mixture simmer until thick like a chili, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in cilantro, if using. Taste and add more salt and chili powder, if needed.

While the chili simmers, prepare the cornbread: In a medium bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.

In a small bowl, whisk together egg, sour cream, butter and honey. Whisk egg mixture into cornmeal mixture until combined. Fold in scallions if using.

Spread cornbread topping over the chili, then top with grated cheese. Bake, uncovered, until cornbread is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot or warm, topped with sour cream and more scallions.

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