The Midnight Judges

Should President Trump lose reelection in November, you can bet Mitch McConnell will work overtime to fill the federal judiciary with conservative judges. Although such an act may be condemned as undemocratic, it would not be unprecedented. John Adams did the same, and even more blatantly as he had his supporters pass a law that enabled him to appoint more Federalist judges. They would be known as the “midnight judges”, which sounds rather familiar as one of the names that McConnell’s opponents have given him is “Midnight Mitch”.

In 1800, John Adams became the first president to lose reelection. He had lost the political support of both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and was defeated by the latter. However, although he was defeated, Adams wanted to be sure Federalists continued to have influence. Thus, shortly before he had to leave office, his supporters in Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which enabled Adams to expand the judiciary and eliminate a seat on the Supreme Court.

With the remaining time in office he had, he labored to appoint all the judges allowed by the law, and they were called the “midnight” judges as he supposedly labored in appointing them until the midnight before Jefferson was to be inaugurated. Easily the most significant appointment he made was that of John Marshall, his secretary of state, as chief justice. He would serve until his death in 1835, and in that time he would define what the Supreme Court’s function was to be in America. However, the expansion would not last, as Jefferson and his new friendly majority were sure to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801. This provoked the ire of Samuel Chase, an overly partisan Federalist justice, who publicly denounced the repeal as opening the door to “mobocracy” and that it would serve to undermine individual and property rights. Jefferson, in turn, denounced Chase, and the House impeached him. The Senate, however, did not convict. To this day, Samuel Chase is the only Supreme Court justice to ever have been impeached.

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