Jefferson versus Chase and the forging of democratic practice

A similar version of this article appears on WesternPress.org.

That federal judges don’t participate in political campaigns or that only criminal acts warrant impeachment, not policy disagreements – both represent two widely accepted elements of American democracy (I would say). Trickier to institute in practice yet preached by those across the ideological spectrum is that judges don’t manipulate legal decisions to political ends.

Our nation’s earliest citizens did not necessarily share these assumptions. See, for instance, President Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to have Congress impeach Justice Samuel Chase. A Federalist, Chase had imposed heavy penalties – including a death sentence – on Republicans after openly biased trials for sedition. He had also openly campaigned in the 1800 election for John Adams, another Federalist, so much so that he delayed the start of that year’s judicial Term. And immediately precipitating the impeachment, in May 1803 Chase gave “an outrageously anti-Republican” charge to a Baltimore grand jury. At least that was the Republican perspective. Chase claimed that the real issue was that he was a Federalist on a Federalist-controlled Supreme Court which a Republican president and a Republican House of Representatives wanted to undermine in any way possible.

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Jefferson versus Chase and the forging of democratic practice

Setting straight the myth of the missing 1924 Court photograph

In a recent article in the Journal of Supreme Court History, Franz Jantzen seeks to debunk an often repeated story — Justice James McReynolds’s refusal to participate in the Supreme Court’s annual photograph in 1924 because he would not sit next to Justice Louis Brandeis, who was Jewish, as seniority would dictate.

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Setting straight the myth of the missing 1924 Court photograph