Commentary

Jefferson and the ‘midnight judges’

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HONOLULU—The current impeachment trial of Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona reminds us of the only other impeachment case so far of a sitting US Supreme Court Associate Justice—that of Samuel Chase in 1805. Even Americans today are not aware of this case, indicative of how an event like this has seldom happened in their political and judicial history.

While the Corona and Chase trials are vastly different, there is a curious similarity as far as the issue of “midnight judges” is concerned. Corona was a midnight appointee as chief justice by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. While not a midnight appointee by then US President George Washington, Chase aggressively defended the Judiciary Act of 1801, which reorganized the federal judiciary in the early 19th century. That law created several openings and vacancies for judges and President John Adams quickly filled up the vacancies with members of his own party until the last day of his term, hence the term “midnight judges.”

The political context of the Chase case involved the power struggle between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans at the time.  They differed sharply in their views on the role of the Supreme Court justices starting in 1789, which required the latter to function as circuit judges as well. They voiced deep concern over their “circuit riding” role and wanted the Supreme Court justices and circuit judges to be separate.

The Judiciary Act of 1801, also known as the Midnight Judges Act, reduced the number of Supreme Court seats from six to five and doubled the number of circuit courts from three to six. It also created three new “circuit judgeships” intended to relieve the Supreme Court justices from the hardships of also sitting as circuit judges. It further reorganized the district courts creating 10 more.

Thus the Judiciary Act of 1801 radically changed the structure and functions of the US judicial system at the time.

John Adams, the young country’s second president, acted swiftly before the end of his term to fill as many judgeships as possible on a partisan basis. One account noted, “[t]he new judges were known as Midnight Judges because Adams was said to be signing their appointments at midnight prior to President Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801.”

Predictably Jefferson acted just as quickly to try to remove the “midnight judges” and to rescind the Judiciary Act of 1801.

One of the major repercussions of Jefferson’s hasty decisions was the impeachment of sitting Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, an avowed Federalist who was appointed by George Washington to the high court. Jefferson had actually sought the impeachment of a district judge but he later went after a “bigger fish” in the person of Chase, who was a prominent leader of the “Sons of Liberty” and an original signer of the Declaration of Independence. Chase shot back at Jefferson, saying, “The late alteration of the federal judiciary will take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy.”

Stung by Chase’s pointed criticisms, Jefferson asked his supporters in the US Congress to have Chase impeached for his “seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution.”

Jefferson’s congressional allies succeeded in impeaching Chase. However, Chase was acquitted by the US Senate of all impeachment charges in 1805. The Senate decided that “Chase’s actions had not constituted the ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ required by the Constitution to remove a judge.”

As disenchanted as he was by this turn of events and probably as upset as one could imagine, Jefferson took the verdict calmly and was reported to “have accepted Chase’s acquittal with equanimity.”

Most US presidential scholars agree that Jefferson was a “superb president.” He was known as “neither a demagogue nor a firebrand.” He was also well-known as a “unifier” often talking about all Americans as both “federalists and republicans.”

But no president is perfect and Jefferson had his share of “stubborn prejudices.” Historian John Garraty writes that Jefferson’s prejudices could be listed as follows: first, against kings in general, second, against the British system of government, and third, against “entrenched judicial power.”

Jefferson deeply distrusted the Federalists who made “shameless use of the opportunity to fill all new positions with conservative members of their own party.”

The world awaits with anticipation the verdict in the Corona impeachment trial in the Philippines. As for Samuel Chase of the famous 19th-century trial, nothing more was heard about him thereafter.

Dr. Belinda A. Aquino is a retired professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she was also the founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies. She is currently a professor emeritus at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies.

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