A House Judiciary subcommittee held a closed hearing yesterday on a resolution to impeach U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Claiborne, the first federal judge to retain his position while imprisoned.

The meeting was preliminary to an open subcommittee session, scheduled Tuesday, to draw up formal articles of impeachment, according to House sources.

The last House impeachment hearings took place 12 years ago when the Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard M. Nixon. He resigned before the full House could vote.

Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on courts, said in an opening statement that the Constitution requires the highest standards of conduct from federal judges and that the "independence of and respect for the judicial system" is at stake in the proceeding.

Before the hearing, Claiborne's lawyer, Oscar Goodman, told reporters that the judge is a victim of overzealous federal prosecutors and FBI agents who had a vendetta against him because of his criticism of the government.

Claiborne attended the hearing. The Associated Press quoted sources as saying that he allowed his attorney to do all the talking.

"You make enemies when you stand up against the government," Goodman said. "He wasn't a milquetoast. He didn't turn his collar when he went on the bench. He called things as he saw them." Goodman added that any mistake on Claiborne's tax returns was made by the preparer, not Claiborne.

Claiborne, who last month began serving a two-year tax evasion sentence in an Alabama prison, has refused to resign his lifetime judicial position and continues to collect his $78,700 salary. Unless he is impeached, he could return to the bench after his release.

The hearing was held in closed session following the members' opening statements.

"Based on 200 years of American history and 400 years of English experience . . . this is the first time that a convicted federal judge has been the subject of an impeachment inquiry," Kastenmeier said.

Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.), ranking minority member on Judiciary, said Claiborne's situation "raises fundamental questions about confidence in, and the public's perception of, the American judicial system."

Kastenmeier pointed out that the Constitution requires that judges "hold office during good behavior" and provides for removal by impeachment for conviction of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

If the House votes to impeach Claiborne, the issue would be referred to the Senate for trial.

Claiborne was indicted in 1983 on income tax evasion and bribery charges. After the jury failed to reach a verdict, the bribery charges were dropped for a second trial in which he was convicted in August 1984. Claiborne was found guilty on two counts of income tax evasion for failing to report $108,000 in income on his 1979 and 1980 returns. Besides the two-year sentence, Claiborne was fined $10,000.