In the first unanimous impeachment vote in U.S. history, the House yesterday recommended the ouster of U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Claiborne, who is serving a two-year sentence on a tax-evasion conviction.
After an hour of debate, during which no member spoke in Claiborne's defense, the House approved four articles of impeachment, 406 to 0, and sent them to the Senate for trial. It was the first House impeachment vote in half a century.
Claiborne, 69, chief judge for the U.S. District Court of Nevada, reported to the federal prison at Maxwell Air Force in Alabama in May to begin serving his sentence. He has refused to resign his lifetime post and continues to collect his $78,700 annual salary.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) summarized the argument for impeachment, saying: "Judge Claiborne stands indicted and convicted of a criminal offense by a jury of his peers who have applied the strictest standard of evidentiary proof -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- in reaching their verdict.
"It is a case where all direct appeals have been exhausted, where the federal judge has been sentenced and is serving time in a penal institution, all the while retaining many of the . . . emoluments of the office which he disgraced."
Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (N.Y.), ranking Republican on the committee, noted that unless Claiborne is convicted by the Senate, he could return to the bench after completing his prison term and would be eligible to retire Sept. 1, 1988, with a pension equal to his judicial salary.
"Judge Claiborne is more than a mere embarrassment. He is a disgrace, an affront to the judicial office . . . he was appointed to serve," Fish said.
Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), who drew up the articles of impeachment, noted that Claiborne is the first federal judge to be convicted of crimes committed while serving on the bench and the first sitting judge to go to prison.
Claiborne, who was appointed in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, was convicted in 1984 on two counts of tax evasion for failing to report nearly $107,000 in income on his federal tax returns for 1979 and 1980. A bribery charge was dropped by the government after the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Claiborne's lawyer, Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas, has said his client was the victim of a vendetta by overzealous government prosecutors. He said Claiborne, who appealed the case unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court, is looking forward to a Senate trial as a way to clear his name.
Under the Constitution, top federal officials can be removed from office only if the House votes for impeachment, which is akin to an indictment, and two-thirds of the Senate votes for conviction. The grounds for removal, as listed in the Constitution, include "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Claiborne is the 14th federal official, and the 11th federal judge, to be impeached. Four of the 13 earlier cases resulted in convictions by the Senate, five were acquittals, one case was thrown out and three defendants resigned during the proceedings.
The House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon in 1974, but he resigned the presidency before the matter reached the full House.
The last official removed by impeachment and conviction was U.S. District Court Judge Halsted L. Ritter of Florida, in 1936.
The four articles of impeachment against Claiborne were approved unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee on June 26.
The first two deal with the judge's income-tax violations.
Article III recommends impeachment because Claiborne "was found guilty by a 12-person jury" in August 1984, sentenced to a two-year prison term and fined $10,000.
Article IV charges that Claiborne's behavior "reduced confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, thereby bringing disrepute on the federal courts and the administration of justice."
The Senate Rules Committee will meet on Thursday to review procedures for Claiborne's trial.
Staff members for Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said yesterday that, due to the Senate's busy schedule, Dole is considering allowing a delegation of 12 senators to hear the testimony on Claiborne during the congressional recess beginning Aug. 15. The full Senate then could vote when it returns in mid-September.
In addition to removing Claiborne from office, the Senate could bar him from ever holding a federal job.
Goodman has said he plans to mount an extensive defense of Claiborne, based largely on their belief that the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated the judge's rights by breaking into his Nevada home and photographing personal financial documents.
Eight members of the House Judiciary Committee were named yesterday to act as prosecutors in the Senate trial. They are Rodino, Fish, Kastenmeier, Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Thomas N. Kindness (R-Ohio).