Judges Liable to Impeachment for Ideology through History

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

Judges Liable to Impeachment for Ideology through History


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Impeaching federal judges for ideological reasons - as the GOP House majority threatens to do to "activist" jurists - has succeeded over the centuries but was often doomed by the Senate supermajority required to convict.

While Democrats condemn the impeachment proposal as inappropriate, political or "a callous disregard for the Constitution," the impeachment mechanism exists and has a considerable history of partisanship by both parties.

Of 13 federal judges impeached by the House, seven were convicted and removed from office, three since 1986. At least 16 others quit before the ax fell.

Historians and legal scholars say political motives were uppermost in the accusations of about half the judges formally charged and in an unknown number of the 60 House investigations.

"It was certainly used as a political tool early on, but more recent examples have all involved crimes," said legal historian Warren G. Grimes of the Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles.

"The House has that power, to use impeachment for political purposes, but I think it's inappropriate for them to use impeachment for that purpose," Mr. Grimes said in an interview.

Chief Justice Earl Warren was the focus of intense impeachment lobbying. He had been a Republican governor of California and much of the unsuccessful effort to remove him from the bench came from members of his party.

In 1970, Justice William O. Douglas came under investigation after an impeachment resolution was filed by House Majority Leader Gerald Ford, who defined an impeachable offense as "whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

The Senate acquitted Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1805 of charges filed by Jeffersonians after he lectured a grand jury on Federalist principles and criticized sedition prosecutions.

But Missouri District Judge West H. Humphreys was convicted and removed in 1862 for sympathizing with secessionists. He was charged with inciting revolt and rebellion and refusal to hold court.

Federal courts, including the Supreme Court in 1936, have refused to hear impeachment-related appeals, leaving it entirely to Congress.

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