Born in Newington, New Hampshire, Pickering studied law at Harvard University and was admitted to the bar after graduating in 1761. In 1787 he was elected to be a member of the New Hampshire delegation to the Constitutional Convention, but he declined to serve. He was appointed in 1790 to the New Hampshire Superior Court where he eventually served as Chief Justice.
Pickering assumed the position of judge on the federal district court for New Hampshire in April 1795, after an attempt to remove him from the New Hampshire Superior Court due to illness. This attempt had become bogged down in political problems and therefore the state convinced President George Washington to appoint him to the relatively low workload post of the Federal District Court.
Pickering recovered from his illness. In 1800, problems emerged as he was no longer attending court as was expected. On 25 April, 1801 court staff wrote to the judges of the federal First Circuit court of appeals to send a temporary replacement for Pickering on the grounds that he had gone insane.
As a stop-gap measure, Circuit Judge Jeremiah Smith sat for part of the 1801 session of the court. In March 1802, Pickering returned, adjourned the Court's business to the next day and then disappeared again. He had reappeared by June of that year and sat to consider United States v. Eliza, a case concerning a ship seized in violation of revenue laws. Allegedly, Pickering was drunk and raved profanities throughout the trial.
Political controversy waged in the Congress with Federalists accusing Democratic-Republicans of trying to usurp the Constitution by attempting to remove the Judge from office though he had committed neither high crimes nor misdemeanors as required by the Constitution.
On 4 February, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent evidence to the U.S. House of Representatives, who voted to impeach Pickering on 2 March, 1803 on charges of drunkenness and unlawful rulings. The U.S. Senate tried the impeachment, beginning 4 January, 1804, and convicted Pickering of all charges presented by the House by a vote of 19 to 7 on 12 March, 1804.
See for an account of Pickering's impeachment.
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