Last time we told you about the background and appointment of federal judge Harry Claiborne of Nevada. As you’ll see, some recent events might be said to have a connection to him.
The Senate confirmed Claiborne’s selection in 1978 and he went on the bench, succeeding Bruce Thompson. One of his old clients soon came back to haunt him. Joe Conforte owned brothels, especially the Mustang Ranch, not far from Reno. When Conforte was convicted of tax evasion charges and faced a long time in jail, he fled the country. But first he offered the federal government some, um, help. He offered to testify about bribes he had made and implicated Claiborne. He said he had given Claiborne about eighty-five thousand dollars to bribe federal judges hearing his case. Yablonsky was able to help Conforte come back to the United States, amid reports that he forced out Nevada’s IRS chief, Gerald Swanson, who didn’t buy what Conforte was selling. In 1983, a federal grand jury indicted Claiborne on charges of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. The jury deadlocked. It didn’t help the government’s case that Conforte was lying: he had not even been in the state at the time he claimed to have been making one of the bribes.
Federal officials tried again. Instead of using Conforte, they prosecuted Claiborne only on the tax evasion charges. In 1979 and 1980, he had not reported just over one hundred thousand dollars in attorney’s fees that had come in after he became a federal judge for work he had done beforehand. He was found guilty, sentenced to two years in prison, and fined ten thousand dollars. He ended up spending seventeen months in prison.
But Claiborne refused to resign, kept getting his salary, and planned to return to the bench after prison. Thus, in 1986, the House moved to impeach him with four articles related to his tax returns and his conviction for that. His attorney, Oscar Goodman, argued that the federal government had been guilty of misconduct. Claiborne contended that his accountants had erred, that he simply had neglected the matter, and that he was not a tax expert. As House managers countered, the issue was whether Claiborne had failed to pay his taxes. Also, he had ruled on tax cases.
Ultimately, the Senate convicted Claiborne on three of the four articles. The one that fell short referred to his conviction by a federal jury. Senator reasoned that if a conviction in a jury trial meant an impeachment conviction, couldn’t a jury acquittal mean that they would have to find the accused innocent, too?
So, Claiborne became the first federal judge impeached, convicted, and removed from office since the Civil War. After his prison term, he returned to Las Vegas. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that he could go back to practicing law. The decision was hotly debated: some felt a convicted and impeached former judge shouldn’t be able to do that; others attacked the federal government again as having gone too far. Claiborne died in 2004, and, to his last case, was as colorful and controversial as ever.
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