Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, plans to introduce an impeachment resolution today to remove U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Claiborne -- the first sitting federal judge to serve time in prison -- from the federal bench.
Claiborne, 68, who reported to the Maxwell Air Force Base prison camp in Alabama May 16 to serve a two-year sentence for tax evasion, will become the first federal judge to face an impeachment proceeding in the past 50 years. Claiborne was convicted in 1984 of failing to report about $106,000 of income for 1978 and 1979 on his federal tax returns.
Claiborne was first indicted on charges that included taking bribes from Joseph Conforte, a Nevada brothel owner. A mistrial was declared when jurors could not agree on a verdict. Prosecutors then dropped the bribery charges and Claiborne was later convicted of two tax evasion violations.
Before reporting to prison, Claiborne announced that he would not resign and that he would continue to receive his $78,200 salary. He said he would welcome an impeachment trial and a chance to tell "my side of the story." Neither Claiborne nor his lawyer, Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas, were available for comment yesterday.
Federal judges are appointed for life, subject to removal only by impeachment. Unless he is impeached, Claiborne could return to the bench after serving his sentence.
In a statement released yesterday, Rodino said, "In light of Judge Claiborne's conviction of a federal crime and the exhaustion of all direct federal appeals, the responsibility falls upon the House . . . to initiate an impeachment proceeding."
"While an impeachment proceeding is an extreme procedure which should only be instituted in the most compelling circumstances, the criminal conviction of a sitting federal judge is obviously a very serious matter that must be looked into in order to preserve the integrity of the federal judiciary," Rodino said.
Rodino said he would introduce the impeachment resolution today when the House returns from its Memorial Day recess. Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., (R-Wis.) a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, had announced May 22 that he would introduce an impeachment resolution if Claiborne did not resign by June 4.
Only 10 federal judges have been removed. The last full impeachment trial and removal was that of Judge Halsted L. Ritter in 1936.
House impeachment experts say the procedure is unpopular because it is so cumbersome and time consuming, with a typical impeachment taking a year or more.
Ironically, after a gap of half a century, the House Judiciary Committee could find itself involved in more than one impeachment trial.
Two months ago, U.S. District Court Judge Walter L. Nixon Jr. of Mississippi was sentenced to five years in prison for lying to a grand jury. His lawyer, Michael Fawer, has said Nixon will not consider resignation. Any attempt to start the impeachment process against Nixon would probably be postponed until his appeals are exhausted.
In addition, an investigative committee of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has spent three years looking into a complaint against U.S. District Court Judge Alcee L. Hastings of Miami.
Hastings was acquitted of bribery-conspiracy charges in February 1983. But two judges later filed a complaint against Hastings using a 1980 law providing that any person may start an investigation by charging that a judge "has engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts . . . . "
In the complaint, filed March 17, 1983, the judges charged that Hastings conspired with Washington lawyer William Borders Jr. to obtain a bribe in exchange for an official judicial act. In addition, the judges asked the investigative committee to look into whether Hastings "exploited" his judicial position after his indictment by soliciting financial contributions for his defense from lawyers and others.