The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously yesterday to seek the impeachment of jailed federal Judge Harry E. Claiborne of Nevada.
Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) predicted that the full House will move "expeditiously" to impeach Claiborne and refer the matter to the Senate, where Claiborne would face a full trial -- perhaps as early as next month -- on whether to remove him from office.
Claiborne is the first judge in U.S. history to attempt to hold onto his judicial post after being convicted and imprisoned on felony charges. Last month he reported to the federal prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, where he is serving a two-year sentence on two counts of tax evasion.
Claiborne's attorney, Oscar Goodman, has charged that his client was the victim of overzealous government agents and prosecutors.
Yesterday, Goodman said the Judiciary vote was "not unexpected. It's bringing us closer and closer to what appears to be the inevitable -- a full trial before the Senate with all the trappings of due process, which the judge is entitled to. And, hopefully, vindication."
Claiborne could become the first federal judge in 50 years to be impreached and removed from the bench. The Constitution guarantees federal judges lifetime tenure unless they are impeached and removed by Congress.
Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) charged yesterday that Claiborne is "crass and greedy" and has engaged in "outrageous, contemptuous conduct" by continuing to draw his $78,700 salary while he's "in the slammer in Alabama."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), one of the first members of Congress to seek Claiborne's impeachment, rejected the judge's claims that he was "entrapped" by federal prosecutors engaged in a vendetta.
"It was a Nevada jury that unanimously judged him guilty. . . . The conduct of persons other than Judge Claiborne is not an issue in an impeachment trial," Sensenbrenner said.
Rodino added, "He was tried by a jury of his peers. He has unsuccessfully appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court."
The panel voted 35-to-0 to approve a package of four articles of impeachment. Two deal with the felony tax-evasion charges on which Claiborne was convicted: failing to report more than $106,000 in income on his federal tax returns for 1979 and 1980.
The third charges that Claiborne's Aug. 10, 1984, conviction is grounds enough for impeachment.
The fourth charges that besides breaking the law, Claiborne violated his oath of office. That article was opposed by several members who said it is too broad and could trigger a lengthy Senate trial. It passed, 28-to-7.
Rep. Hank Brown (R-Col.) supported the fourth article, saying that the Senate should be allowed to look extensively into the activities of a judge who "wandered around to casinos in Las Vegas cashing checks so they wouldn't show up in his bank account" and who underreported his income to the Internal Revenue Service but inflated it in applying for bank loans.
Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), the subcommittee chairman who drew up the articles of impeachment, said he hopes to bring the impeachment resolution to the House floor the week of July 14.