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December 30th, 2010

Iowa’s Short History with Impeachment

There have only been a three occasions when the Iowa House of Representatives has filed articles of impeachment.

In 1886, the House impeached District Judge Walter I. Hayes

In 1886, the House impeached State Auditor John L. Brown

In 1919, the House impeached Governor William Harding

In each of these instances, the impeachment failed in the State Senate. With three recently elected State Representatives talking about impeaching the four remaining members of the Iowa Supreme Court, it is the appropriate time to look back at the state’s history of previous impeachments.

Looking at this history helps us put the current impeachment talk in context with what has occurred in the past.  There has only been one impeachment attempt of a judge, and that stemmed from the fines and penalties he imposed as well as suspicion of collusion with the district attorney.

The most notable impeachment case involves the impeachment of State Auditor John L. Brown.  There is a plethora of information about this case.  The other instance involves the attempted impeachment of Governor William Harding over a pardon he granted.

Below are the synopses of these three cases.  None of them is precisely on point with the proposed impeachment of the four remaining Supreme Court Justices, but this research does provide us the ability to actually read the articles of impeachment in the Brown case, which may help us all understand just what a malfeasance actually means in respect to impeachment.

The Impeachment of District Judge Walter I. Hayes

The County Temperance Alliance at Muscatine Iowa, on the 15th appointed a committee to present a report to the Legislature for the impeachment of Judge Walter L. Hayes of the Seventh Judicial District charging that he “willfully deliberately and persistently defeat[ed] the law by imposing merely nominal fines and decreasing the amount of offenses instead of increasing them as the law requires. It charges “collusion with District Attorney Gannon in requiring convicted saloon keepers to plead not guilty instead of guilty, so the attorney can get double the fees, and gives instances of men fined larger amounts when they pleaded guilty than when they pleaded not guilty.”  (The Friend: A religious and literary journal, 1886, Vol LIX, No. 25, William Pile: Philadelphia, p. 200)

The Impeachment of State Auditor John L. Brown

According to Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens, Volume 2 by Johnson Brighmam, on March 3, 1885, Buren Sherman Iowa’s 12th governor “called Auditor John L. Brown to account for an alleged irregularity in reporting to the state treasurer the insurance fees collected by him.  Brown failed to satisfy the governor and was summarily suspended. The suspension was accompanied by an order to vacate the office. The auditor denied the right of the governor to make the order. Locking himself into his private office, Brown awaited Sherman’s next move. He had not long to wait. The governor, with the aid of his militia, forcibly entered and ejected the auditor. [Sherman] appointed Jonathan W. Cattell, ex-auditor to fill the vacant position.” (p. 490).

Then, in April 1886, after William Larabee was elected governor, he removed Cattell as auditor and reinstated Brown to office on the basis that Brown had been wrongfully removed.  On April 9, 1886, “a senate committee reported unfavorably on Auditor Brown’s course. Articles of impeachment were preferred by the House, and Brown was tried before the Senate. Meantime the governor appointed Charles Beardsley auditor pro tem. The trial divided the Senate temporarily into hostile camps. Suffice to say, the impeachment failed, and Auditor Brown was reinstated.” (p.520). “After a lengthy trial he was acquitted of all serious charges and a subsequent General Assembly reimbursed him for expenses incurred in the trial.” (History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Volume 4, p. 31)

The Impeachment of Governor William Harding

In 1919, Iowa Governor William Harding’s administration was clouded by the fact that the Iowa House Judiciary Committee attempted to impeach Harding due to allegations of granting a pardon to an Iowa prisoner after accepting a bribe from his family. Although Harding was not impeached, a censure motion was approved.

When the House Judiciary Committee attempted to impeach Governor Harding it was because he gave a pardon in November 1918 to Ernest Rathbon who had confessed to rape in Ida County in December 1917. Rathbon had been sentenced to life in prison. Rathbon had testified at the trial of another defendant involved in the case and perjured himself in statements made concerning that trial. The statements, however, were helpful in securing his pardon. Then, when it was discovered that he’d perjured himself, he was convicted of that crime as well, and his pardon was annulled and his prior life conviction reinstated.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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