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Only once has a justice been driven from the Court by outside pressure. That occurred in 1969, when Justice Abe Fortas resigned. The resignation followed by less than eight months a successful Senate filibuster against President Lyndon B. Johnson's nomination of Fortas to be chief justice. Fortas's departure from the Court climaxed a furor brought on by the disclosure in May that he had received and held for eleven months a $20,000 fee from the family foundation of a man later imprisoned for illegal stock manipulation.

A year after Fortas's resignation, an attempt was made to bring impeachment charges against Justice William Douglas. General dissatisfaction with Douglas's liberal views and controversial lifestyle—combined with frustration over the Senate's rejection of two of President Nixon's conservative southern nominees—seemed to spark the action. House Republican leader Gerald R. Ford of Michigan, who led the attempt to impeach Douglas, charged among other things that the justice had practiced law in violation of federal law, had failed to disqualify himself in cases in which he had an interest, and had violated standards of good behavior by allegedly advocating revolution. A special House judiciary subcommittee created to investigate the charges found no grounds for impeachment.

The only Supreme Court justice ever to be impeached was Samuel Chase. A staunch Federalist who had rankled Jeffersonians with his partisan political statements and his vigorous prosecution of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Chase was impeached by the House in 1804. But his critics failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate for conviction. (See “Removal from Office,” pp. 893–899.)

Other, less heralded cases of questionable behavior have occurred from time to time. In 1857, when the nation was awaiting the Court's decision in Scott v. Sandford, Justices Robert Grier and John Catron wrote privately to the incoming president, James Buchanan, detailing the Court's discussions and foretelling the final decision. Buchanan was glad of the news and was able to say in his inaugural address that the decision was expected to come soon and that he and all Americans should acquiesce in it. Divulging the Court's decision before it is publicly announced is generally considered to be unethical.

Another controversy arose fourteen years later in the Legal Tender Cases. The Court, with two vacancies, had found the Civil War legal tender acts unconstitutional. But then President Grant named two justices to fill the vacancies, and the Court voted to rehear the case. With the two new justices—William Strong and Joseph P. Bradley—voting with the majority, the Court now found the legal tender acts constitutional. It was charged that Grant had appointed the two knowing in advance that they would vote to reverse the Court's previous decision. Historians have no evidence of any explicit arrangements.

Although political activity by Supreme Court justices usually has been frowned on, it has not been unknown, especially during the nineteenth century when several justices manifested a hunger for their party's presidential nomination. Justice John McLean entertained presidential ambitions throughout his long Supreme Court career (1829–1861) and flirted with several political parties at various stages. In 1856 he received 190 votes on an informal first ballot at the first Republican national convention. He also sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Chief Justice Salmon Chase had aspired to the presidency before going on the bench, losing the Republican nomination to Lincoln in 1860. In 1864, while serving as Lincoln's Treasury secretary, he allowed himself to become the focus of an anti-Lincoln group within the Republican Party. During his service on the Court, in both 1868 and 1872, he made no secret of his still-burning presidential ambitions and allowed friends to maneuver politically for him.

In 1877 the Supreme Court was thrust into the election process when a dispute arose about the outcome of the 1876 presidential election. To resolve the problem, Congress created a special electoral commission that included five Supreme Court justices. Each House of Congress also chose five members, the Democratic House selecting five Democrats and the Republican Senate five Republicans.

The five justices were supposed to be divided evenly politically—two Democrats, Clifford and Field; two Republicans, Miller and Strong; and independent David Davis. Davis, however, withdrew from consideration because he had been elected a U.S. senator from Illinois. Justice Bradley, a Republican, was substituted for Davis, making the overall lineup on the commission eight to seven in favor of the Republicans.

The three Republican justices loyally supported the claims of Republican presidential aspirant Rutherford Hayes on all questions, and the two Democratic justices backed Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. The result was the election of Hayes. Justice Clifford, the chairman of the commission, was so contemptuous of the outcome that he called Hayes an illegitimate president and refused to enter the White House during his term.

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Relative Justices

Service on the Court has sometimes been a family tradition. The two justices named John Marshall Harlan were grandfather and grandson. The elder Harlan, a Kentucky politician, was put on the Court by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 and served until 1911—one of the longest periods of service in Court history. His grandson and namesake was born and grew up in Chicago and made his career as a highly successful Wall Street lawyer. His service extended from his appointment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 until his resignation in September 1971.

Stephen J. Field was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Twenty-seven years later, in 1890, he was joined by his nephew on the Court when President Benjamin Harrison named David Brewer as an associate justice. Brewer was the son of Field's sister. The two served together on the Court for seven years, until Field retired in 1897.

Justice Stanley Matthews was four years older than his colleague Justice Horace Gray, both of whom were appointed in 1881. They served together for eight years until Matthews's death in March 1889. Three months later, Gray, a sixty-one-year-old bachelor, married Matthews's daughter Jane.

The two Lamars who served on the Court—Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi and Joseph Rucker Lamar of Georgia—were cousins, descendants of a Huguenot family that settled in the colonies in the 1600s. Lucius Lamar was also a cousin of John A. Campbell, who served on the Court from 1853 to 1861. Lucius served from 1888 to 1893 and was the first native-born southerner to be appointed after the Civil War. Joseph Lamar, appointed by President William Howard Taft, served from 1911 to 1916.

 

Document Citation
2 David G. Savage, Controversial Justices, in Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court 1060-61 (5th ed., 2011), http://library.cqpress.com/scc/gct5v2-1180-57531-2237470.
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Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/scc/gct5v2-1180-57531-2237470