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Written by John R. Vile, published on March 21, 2024 , last updated on March 21, 2024

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Samuel Chase, an American founding father and an early Supreme Court justice, expressed strong support of speech and press freedom, but later supported the Sedition Act which punished those who spoke against the government. He believed that criticism of government that undermined the public's support of government should be punished. Chase became the only Supreme Court justice to have been impeached by the House of Representatives (though he was not convicted by the Senate) for his partisanship as a judge in the prosecutions of newspaper editors of seditious libel under the Sedition Act of 1798. (Portrait of Samuel Chase, public domain)

Samuel Chase (1741-1811) was an important American founder and U.S. Supreme Court justice from Maryland. He is the only Supreme Court justice to have been impeached, though not convicted. The House of Representatives had impeached him for his partisanship during sedition trials over which he presided.

After reading law, Chase established a legal practice and earned a reputation both for brilliance and for a fiery temperament and intemperate language against his political opponents. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who had observed Chase in the Continental Congress, observed that his “character was a good deal checkered,” and that “He possessed more learning than knowledge, and more of both than judgment” (Vile 2019, 222).

Chase opposed Stamp Act

Chase was a forceful opponent of the Stamp Act and other parliamentary attempts to tax the colonies, and he served in the Continental Congress where he signed the Declaration of Independence. Chase also supported the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which provided for strong protection for freedom of the press and religion. He was, however, accused of using his inside knowledge of military purchases at the Continental Congress to engage in war profiteering.  

Chase had opposed adoption of the U.S. Constitution, in part because of its initial lack of a Bill of Rights, which he thought should include liberty of conscience as well as “freedom of speech and of writing and publishing . . . thoughts on public matters” (Bird 2016, 228). He soon came to support the new government as a member of the Federalist Party.

In Maryland, he was impeached (albeit not convicted) for having held two state positions simultaneously in violation of Maryland’s own bill of rights. 

While serving in Maryland, Chase authored the decision in Bunkel v. Winemiller, 4 H. & McH. 429 (1799), in which he had suggested that the state could intervene in cases involving Christian clergymen, as long as it did not prefer one denomination to another.

In one of several opinions in the case of Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. (3 U.S.) 386 (1798), Chase argued as a U.S. Supreme Court justice that there might be some cases where laws were unconstitutional not because they violated the written Constitution itself but because they violated fundamental principles of natural law, such as the principle that no individual should be a judge in his own case.

Samuel Chase favored Sedition Act, presided over cases

George Washington appointed Chase to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1798, and Chase served until his death in 1811.  As a justice his emphasis shifted from support for First Amendment freedoms to concern that the Democratic-Republican press had become “licentious” in its criticisms and was undermining the government. 

A strong partisan on behalf of the Sedition Act of 1798, Chase presided as a circuit judge over some of the most controversial trials under this law, did not offer due process to the defendants, and delivered fiery instructions to jury members involved in this controversy. 

Samuel Chase thought criticism of government ‘saps’ its foundations

In the libel trial of Thomas Cooper, Chase clearly supported the doctrine of seditious libels. He thus observed that:

All governments which I have ever read of or heard of punish libels against themselves. If a man attempts to destroy the confidence of the people in their officers, their supreme magistrate, and their legislature, he effectually saps the foundation of the government. A republican government can only be destroyed in two ways; the introduction of luxury, or the licentiousness of the press. This latter is the more slow, but most sure and certain, means of bringing about the destruction of the government. The legislature of this country, knowing this maxim, has thought proper to pass a law to check this licentiousness of the press. . . the Sedition Law. (Bird 2016, 286).

Chase further argued that although people had the right to express their views in elections, once the elections were over, the people were required to tow the governmental line. 

Almost as though he had forgotten his own role in criticizing British rule, Chase also presided over the trial of individuals who had been involved in the construction of a liberty pole. 

As judge, Chase allied himself with prosecutions of seditious libel

In the trial of Thomas Cooper, the editor of this Northumberland Gazette, Chase openly allied himself with the attorney general bringing the charges and abrogated the right to decide on the falsity of Cooper’s editorials to himself. He effectively shifted the burden of proof from the government to the defendant (Bird 2016, 292). 

In a subsequent trial of James T. Callender, who had published a pamphlet criticizing the government, Chase continued to characterize Callendar’s criticisms as crossing the line from “liberty” to “licentiousness of the press” (Bird 2916, 294). He further expressed his own strong critiques of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had authored in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

While riding circuit in Delaware, Chase effectively commanded authorities to bring those who were criticizing the government to heel. 

House impeached Samuel Chase for partisanship in sedition trials

After Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic Republican Party came into office in 1801, he pardoned those who had been convicted under the Sedition Act, which Federalists had conveniently timed to expire after the election so it could not be used against them. 

The House of Representatives subsequently impeached Chase for what were regarded as intemperate and partisan comments during the trials under the Sedition Act over which he had presided. Chase had strong defense attorneys, and the Senate failed to convict Chase.

Although lower court judges have been impeached and sometimes removed from office, Chase remains the only Supreme Court Justice who was so charged. Had he been convicted, others would likely have been impeached, and the Supreme Court would be far less independent than it is today and far less likely to be able to protect individuals seeking protection under the First Amendment and other provisions of the Bill of Rights. 

John R. Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.

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