Experiencing stories of the truly absurd is almost universally amusing. In the U.S. political system, there may be few stories more absurd than the story of the first American impeachment as told through the tale of its crotchety and unwilling pioneer: Judge John Pickering.
Pickering wore many political hats while America was still a young nation, but his time on the Superior Court of New Hampshire- and subsequent impeachment- set a potential precedent for the removal of profane and ridiculous political figures from office.
The process of removal from government office is primarily known as impeachment, however the term impeachment refers to the first step in this process and is only the formal act of bringing charges against a government official to justify their removal.
If one were to compare this removal to a trial, the act of impeaching is more similar to an indictment than a conviction. What’s more, grounds for impeachment, that is, the actions a person can be impeached or charged with, are the same for all government officials, including judges, members of Congress, the Vice President, and yes, the President. It is this factor that makes the impeachment and conviction of Judge Pickering on grounds of misdemeanors so politically intriguing and impactful.
Confirmed to the Superior Court of New Hampshire by the Senate in 1795, Pickering spent a few uneventful years on the bench, but by the early 1800s he had begun imposing a brand of eccentric tyranny in his courtroom. The judge was generally drunk: power-drunk and heavily intoxicated at any given hour on the bench.
Judge Pickering was unequivocally and self-admittedly biased in his judgments.
No greater or more perversely entertaining example can be offered than the hearings surrounding the confiscation of the good ship Eliza, which belonged to a political friend of Pickering’s. The ship’s owner, a prominent Federalist as Pickering also was, had little to fear of the New Hampshire customs officials who had taken possession of his vessel: not with a judge like Pickering presiding over the case.
Seeing no issue with the use of his power of judgment to grant excusal from the law based solely on his political affinities, Pickering illegally restored the ship to its owner at once. However, it was when a customs official filed suit to hold the owner accountable and repossess the ship that Judge Pickering truly took his court for a ride on the crazy train.
According to the reports of witnesses, Pickering arrived on the morning of November 11, 1802, entirely and undeniably drunk. Pickering’s own court clerk recorded that the judge “exhibited every mark of intoxication; staggered and reeled, spoke in a thick way.”
A drunken Pickering felt no need to deny this fact, as he adjourned court after threatening an attorney with the 1800s equivalent of a spanking and concluded with the statement “I shall be sober in the Morning. I am now d***ed drunk.”
The judge’s prediction was as bad at holding water as he was at holding his liquor: he showed up the next day “equally deranged and intoxicated.” Beyond his intoxication, Pickering blatantly disregarded the rule of law, feeling the need to let all concerned parties know that they could count on his favoritism for millennia, the judge complained, “If we sit here four thousand years, the ship will still be restored.”
The by now exasperated prosecutor attempted to argue that the collection of penalties on the ship ought to bring revenue to the state, but to no avail, as an indignant Pickering retorted, “D*** the revenue, I get but a thousand dollars of it.”
There was little doubt in the minds of Congress that the now 66-year-old Pickering’s reign over the Superior Court of New Hampshire needed to come to an end. Declared “wild, extravagant, and incoherent” by his own defense, his Senate trial proceeded in the absence of an unwell Pickering.
The irony of Pickering’s proxy pleading insanity as a means of keeping him from being removed should be lost on no one. Indeed, the sheer lunacy of the defense itself would seem to shine a light on the intended meaning of the phrase “other high crimes and misdemeanors” in America’s Constitution.
Legislators of the day could think of no more appropriate instance for the use of that Constitutional phrase than the removal of this horribly, though perhaps comically, unfit judge, and in 1804 the U.S. Senate convicted Pickering of the articles of impeachment drawn against him and removed him from office.
Pickering remains one of the only U.S. government officials to be impeached without criminal charges ever being filed against him. The Congress that convicted and removed Pickering from office felt it unnecessary to prove him a criminal; according to those who charged him, impeachable offenses that fall under “other high crimes and misdemeanors” included poor character resulting in abuse of power in the execution of government duties.
Despite this, the impeachment of Judge John Pickering failed to set a consistent precedent for ousting officials who may lack moral fiber. In the days since his drunken rants and cantankerous behavior, most –if not all – impeachments have required more serious crimes than bad character.
There is no doubt, however, that a wider definition of the phrase “other high crimes and misdemeanors” was completely necessary in the case of Judge John Pickering and may be necessary in future situations.