Federal Judge Is Impeached for Profiting from His Office Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Judge Robert W. Archibald, appointed to the U.S. Commerce Court by President William Howard Taft, engaged in questionable financial dealings with railroad companies. He was convicted by Congress and removed from the bench for life for encouraging companies to act in his financial interest. The case caused a national scandal not only because a judge was impeached but also because a federal court, the Commerce Court, was abolished as a consequence.

Summary of Event

U.S. president William Howard Taft proposed a federal-level commerce court to try cases involving interstate commerce. Created by congressional act, five judges were appointed to serve on the new U.S. Commerce Court. The court had received dubious public and congressional support and soon came under scrutiny for handing down decisions too favorable to the railroad companies. The court’s reputation came under even greater attack when one of its judges, Robert W. Archibald, was accused of improper conduct and impeached for making deals with railroad companies for his financial gain. [kw]Impeached for Profiting from His Office, Federal Judge Is (Jan. 13, 1913) Impeachment;of judges[judges] Archibald, Robert W. Archibald, Robert W. [g]United States;Jan. 13, 1913: Federal Judge Is Impeached for Profiting from His Office[00160] [c]Corruption;Jan., 1913: British Prime Minister’s Staff Is Investigated for Insider Trading[00150] [c]Law and the courts;Jan., 1913: British Prime Minister’s Staff Is Investigated for Insider Trading[00150] [c]Government;Jan., 1913: British Prime Minister’s Staff Is Investigated for Insider Trading[00150] [c]Politics;Jan., 1913: British Prime Minister’s Staff Is Investigated for Insider Trading[00150] Davis, John W. Taft, William Howard

On June 18, 1910, the U.S. Congress created the Commerce Court by passing the Mann-Elkins Act, effective February 8, 1911. The court was conceived as the venue to hear cases concerning the Interstate Commerce Act Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 (1887) and to decide cases arising from appeals of decisions made by the Interstate Commerce Interstate Commerce Commission Commission (ICC), which was created by the Interstate Commerce Act.

Problems started soon after the Commerce Court began to hear cases. Many accused the court of making decisions that unfairly favored railroad interests. The U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Supreme Court, which heard appeals of Commerce Court decisions, took away some of the new court’s jurisdiction by ruling that it could not hear some cases appealing ICC decisions on rate changes. The public at the time supported the ICC, and the Commerce Court’s tendency to reverse ICC decisions made it unpopular. The Supreme Court also reversed ten of the new court’s first twelve decisions that had been appealed.

Bad publicity and negative sentiment surrounding Commerce Court decisions simply made a bad situation worse. A more pressing problem came to light. Rumors began to circulate in Pennsylvania that Archibald was making deals with railroad companies, a direct conflict of interest. He was familiar to the area because of his tenure as a Pennsylvania circuit court judge. Furthermore, even before Judge Archibald’s appointment was confirmed, the Senate Judiciary Committee had been investigating some of his past financial affairs. He had been involved with a failed corporation, which led to heavy financial losses for its shareholders.

Further investigations revealed that Archibald had made a deal with the Erie Railroad. He had been trying to buy a culm heap in Pennsylvania that was on land owned by the Erie Railroad. Culm was a coal product that for many years was considered worthless to industry. However, the invention of a process of using the culm to generate power suddenly made culm heaps valuable. Archibald had attempted to arrange the purchase through Edward J. Williams, an attorney he hired to act on his behalf. The Erie Railroad would not sell the culm heap to Williams, so Archibald stepped in and began his own negotiations. Williams later stated that he had advised Archibald against the dealings.

Archibald went ahead with the purchase, paying thirty-five hundred dollars and arranging to sell the same heap to the Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley Railroad for thirty-five thousand dollars in a deal that would have netted Archibald a huge profit. The deal, however, was stalled because of issues with the land’s title and because the railroad’s executive had not yet signed the purchase agreement by the time the story became public. Newspapers detailed the transaction between Archibald and the railroad, and people began to call for an investigation; some called for Archibald’s impeachment.

A special committee, headed by Representative John W. Davis from West Virginia, investigated the allegations against Archibald. Davis spoke to Congress about Archibald’s actions and argued that even though none of the charges brought against the judge could lead to impeachment, the judge’s actions were impeachable. Davis’s proclamations helped to make him a nationally recognized politician; in 1924 he was the Democratic nominee for president.

Most of the thirteen charges against Archibald centered on his using his position to get financial favors from railroads and related companies, although neither of the railroads in question faced him in court. It was likely, however, they would have faced him had the dealings not come to light and he continued his tenure. Although judges were permitted to make personal financial transactions, they could not make those transactions, as Archibald did, from their positions as standing judges. Such transactions would constitute a gross conflict of interest. (Archibald even used Commerce Court stationery to carry out his negotiations with the railroad companies.)

On July 13, 1912, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached Archibald by a vote of 223-1. His impeachment trial in the Senate began four days later. On January 13, 1913, the Senate convicted him of five of the thirteen charges, removed him from office, and permanently barred him from holding legal or political office.


The Archibald impeachment proceedings were followed closely by Americans. Even before the Archibald case, there had been much outcry against the Commerce Court. The accusation that one of its members was involved in illegal dealings with the railroads seemed to confirm suspicions that the court, from the start, had been biased in favor of the railroads. On October 22, 1913, the Commerce Court was abolished, effective December 31 of the same year. The act to abolish the court, which Taft had previously vetoed, was carried through after the new president, Woodrow Wilson, signed the bill into law.

The impeachment trial, the dissolution of the Commerce Court, and the publicity did little to help the government’s image as a public advocate. Instead, the case gave rise to an increasing feeling that many of the prominent individuals in the country were in the pockets of the railroads. There have been few impeachment proceedings in U.S. history, but the Archibald case, enmeshed as it was with the dissolution of a national court, riveted the nation. Archibald, Robert W.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Charles Lund. Impeachment: A Handbook. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A discussion of the historical beginnings of impeachment, with explanations of how impeachment helps maintain good government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coletta, Paolo E. The Presidency of William Howard Taft. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973. Discusses the Taft presidency. Explores the creation, and dissolution, of the Commerce Court, as well as the impeachment proceedings of Judge Archibald.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerhardt, Michael. The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. A discussion of the history of the impeachment process, with special focus on the impeachment of federal judges. Analyzes impeachment cases and their legal issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, John. The Impeachment Process. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. A history of the impeachment process, with chapters explaining procedures in the House and Senate. Includes a chapter detailing some of the notable impeachment proceedings in U.S. history.

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Categories: History