John Pickering was the first federal judge removed from the bench. George Washington named him to the United States District Court in 1795. During his tenure, Pickering experienced bouts of illness. Eventually, many believed the judge insane. At the same time, President Thomas Jefferson experienced problems with the Federalist judiciary. As a result, the president hoped to remove Federalist judges through impeachment and replace them with administration friendly legal minds. He targeted Pickering to test the waters. In the end, John Pickering became the first federal official removed from office through the impeachment process. After the trial, Jefferson moved to impeach and remove his political enemies, but failed as the politicians recognized his motives and feared the potential precedent.
John Pickering served on the New Hampshire Superior Court. His health became a concern and led to a 1795 attempt to remove him from office. The effort failed, but led the state’s leaders to beg George Washington to elevate Pickering to the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire. Some hoped the district court’s lighter workload would help Pickering. All involved hoped Pickering would disappear.
Washington nominated Pickering to the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire in 1795. The Senate quickly confirmed the appointment and Pickering assumed office. For a time, it appeared the judge recovered from his illness. In 1800, he suffered a relapse and began missing court sessions.
The court suffered through Pickering’s eccentricities and absences for a year. Finally, the staff appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals begging for a replacement. They claimed Pickering was insane. A replacement filled in for a year until the judge returned in 1802. However, he quickly disappeared again.
Eventually, Thomas Jefferson learned of Pickering’s behavior. He collected evidence and then forwarded it to the House of Representatives. Jefferson controlled the body and quickly earned an affirmative impeachment vote forwarding the case to the Senate for trial. The indictment accused Pickering of drunkenness and “corrupt judgments.” The Senate trial did not begin for nearly a year because Congress was embroiled in the Louisiana debate.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, the Pickering case moved forward. Initially, the Federalists opposed impeachment. They questioned the legality and constitutionality of the move. Many believed Jefferson’s motives less than pure. The president experienced difficulties with Federalist judges and was looking for a way to circumvent them. Jefferson decided impeachment and removal from office might solve his problems. Pickering represented a test case. The opposition recognized Jefferson’s motives.
The trial began in January 1804, but Pickering was not required to appear until March. Once March arrived, the judge failed to show throwing the Senate into a rage. Vice President Aaron Burr presented a letter from Pickering’s son requesting a recess until he could produce evidence of his father’s innocence. Jacob Pickering argued his father was insane when he allegedly committed his crimes.
As the Senate questioned Pickering‘s sanity, Federalists questioned whether Pickering’s behavior rose to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” needed to remove an official. If Pickering was truly insane, then he was not guilty. Under this interpretation, mentally disturbed officials could never be removed from office. The Constitution provided no recourse to remove officials for mental illness or health concerns.
Despite the constitutional concerns, and Federalist complaints about Jefferson’s motives, the Senate voted to convict Pickering 19-7 and removed him from office by a 20-6 vote. John Pickering passed away the following year. Pickering’s mental illness provided Jefferson an easy target. He needed to be removed from office because he could not fulfill his duties.
After Pickering’s removal, Jefferson moved on another judicial enemy. Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase often launched torrid assaults on Jefferson from the bench. After attacking Jefferson for wanting to install a “mobocracy,” the president moved. The House of Representatives impeached Chase on eight counts some of which dealt with the Justice’s political opinions. The Senate recognized a political witch hunt and acquitted Chase. The acquittal saved the American judiciary by keeping it independent and immune from political calculus. Jefferson’s dream of usurping the judiciary died with Chase’s escape.
John Pickering deserved to be removed from office. He was insane and incapable of serving as a judge. The case decided whether an official could be removed for an illness. It also served as a test case for President Jefferson’s attempt to recreate the judiciary in his own image. The Chase trial furthered judicial independence and established boundaries for Congress.