Document Type


Publication Title

Antioch Review

Publication Date

Summer 1970


America, unlike Europe, has had few dramatic state trials. The treason trial of Aaron Burr and the impeachments of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson were lifeless parodies of the proceedings against Charles I and Warren Hastings in England, or against Louis XVI and Robespierre in France. Nor have we seen the frequent overturn of government which necessitates successor regime trials─cases in which the new rulers try to show the people how corrupt, venal, and criminal their predecessors had been by putting ousted presidents in the dock for embezzlement or treason.

But in other ways the United States has had fully as many political trials as any other nation. In the furious game of politics, the legal system offers a tempting opportunity for those in power to damage enemies, tarnish their image, and isolate them from potential allies by casting them as criminals. And conversely, outgroups may challenge governmental policy in the courts to prove its illegitimacy. Otto Kirchheimer writes in his brilliant book Political Justice:

... both governments and private groups have tried to enlist the sup­ port of the courts for upholding or shifting the balance of political power. With or without disguise, political issues arc brought before the courts; they must be faced and weighed on the scales of law, much though the iudges may be inclined to evade them. Political trials are inescapable.