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John Pickering (September 22, 1737 – April 11, 1805) served as chief justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court of Judicature, and as judge for the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire. He was the first federal official to be removed from office upon conviction by impeachment; the charges by Congress were for drunkenness and unlawful rulings.

John Pickering
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire
In office
February 11, 1795 – March 12, 1804
Appointed byGeorge Washington
Preceded byJohn Sullivan
Succeeded byJohn Samuel Sherburne
Judge of the New Hampshire Superior Court
In office
Member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born(1737-09-22)September 22, 1737
Newington, New Hampshire
DiedApril 11, 1805(1805-04-11) (aged 67)
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Resting placeNorth Cemetery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Alma materHarvard College


Early lifeEdit

Born in Newington, New Hampshire, Pickering studied law at Harvard College and was admitted to the bar after graduating in 1761. He was in private practice in Greenland, New Hampshire and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Start of careerEdit

Pickering served as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 1783 to 1787. In 1787 he was elected to the New Hampshire delegation to the Constitutional Convention, but he declined to serve, instead continuing to practice law in Portsmouth.

In 1790, Pickering was appointed to the New Hampshire Superior Court, where he eventually served as Chief Justice. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1791.[1]

Federal judgeEdit

In 1795, an attempt to remove Pickering from the New Hampshire Superior Court due to illness became bogged down in political problems. The state convinced President George Washington to appoint Pickering to the Federal District Court, which had a relatively low workload. On February 10, 1795, Washington nominated Pickering to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire vacated by John Sullivan. The following day, Pickering was confirmed by the United States Senate and received his commission. Pickering assumed the office in April 1795.

By 1800, Pickering had begun to show definite signs of mental deterioration. This became severe enough of an impediment that on April 25, 1801 court staff wrote to the judges of the United States Circuit Court for the First Circuit[a] requesting that they send a temporary replacement. The First Circuit appointed Jeremiah Smith, circuit judge, pursuant to § 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1801 to take over Pickering's caseload.

With the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1802, which explicitly repealed the 1801 Act,[b] there were no more circuit judgeships[c] and the circuit courts' powers were reverted to what they were prior to the 1802 Act.[2]:488[3]


On February 3, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent evidence to the House of Representatives against Pickering, accusing him of having made unlawful rulings and being of bad moral character due to intoxication while on the bench. The charges arose in connection with a libel for unpaid duties against the Eliza. The House voted to impeach Pickering on March 2, 1803 on charges of drunkenness and unlawful rulings.[2]:491 Political controversy raged, with Federalists accusing Democratic-Republicans of trying to usurp the Constitution by attempting to remove the judge from office, although he had committed neither "high crimes nor misdemeanors", which are grounds for impeachment under the Constitution.[2]

The Senate tried Pickering in absentia, beginning January 4, 1804. The Senate convicted Pickering of all charges by a vote of 19 to 7 on March 12, 1804, thereby immediately removing him from office.[2]:504

Death and burialEdit

Pickering died in Portsmouth on April 11, 1805. He was buried at North Cemetery in Portsmouth.


  1. ^ This was a United States circuit court created along with the Judiciary Act of 1801—otherwise called the Midnight Judges Act—which had moved from the three-circuit grouping embodied in the Judiciary Act of 1789 (Eastern, Middle, and Southern Circuits) to a six-circuit grouping (First through Sixth Circuits).
  2. ^ The six-circuit system was retained, though because the 1802 Act expressly repealed the 1801 Act, its provisions formed "new" judicial circuits whose boundaries were—except for the classification of district courts in Maine, Kentucky and Tennessee—identical to those in the 1801 Act.
  3. ^ The 1802 Act, § 4, specified that the circuit court would be held by the district judge for the district where court was to be held, and by an allotted Supreme Court justice who would be riding circuit. That is, when the First Circuit would hold its two annual sessions in New Hampshire, Judge Pickering and Justice William Cushing were to preside.


  1. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter P" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d Turner, Lynn W. (April 1949). "The Impeachment of John Pickering". American Historical Review. 54 (3): 485–507. JSTOR 1843004.
  3. ^ Act of Apr. 29, 1802, ch. 31, 2 Stat. 156.

Further readingEdit

  • Adams, Henry. "II:7" . History of the United States 1801-09 – via Wikisource. For an account of Pickering's impeachment.

External linksEdit