Last time, we talked about an impeachment involving a Nevadan at the state level. Nevada has another major connection to the history of impeachment: in 1986, U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne became the first federal judge impeached, convicted, and removed from office since the Civil War. It was a complicated, controversial case.
Claiborne was born in rural Arkansas. He came to Nevada during World War II as a military policeman and decided to make Las Vegas his home. He was like a lot of wartime military personnel who moved to places in the West: they had been stationed in the region and hoped to make a new life in the postwar era. He soon became a prosecutor and a member of the legislature. He practiced law in the days when you didn’t really specialize. He handled everything from casino licensing for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to divorces for Judy Garland and Carol Burnett. But he soon became legendary as a defense attorney—a determined fighter for his clients, willing to use every courthouse trick you can think of. One of his classics was when the other side made its closing argument. At that time, he would go to the courtroom water cooler to get a drink and intentionally splash himself to divert the jury’s attention. Finally he tried it and couldn’t get any water to come out. Everybody in the courtroom burst out laughing. Judge John Mowbray had ordered the water shut off.
Claiborne became associated with Benny Binion, the legendary operator of the Horseshoe. At one point, Claiborne had prosecuted a case that Binion didn’t want taken to court. When Binion told him later he wanted him to handle some legal work for him, Claiborne mentioned that earlier incident. Binion said, “I didn’t know I had to like my lawyer.”
Claiborne remained active in politics. In 1964, he challenged one-term Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon in the U.S. Senate primary. He lost big, but a decade later, Cannon called him to Washington to help him work on Senate rules. Cannon chaired that committee and would be in charge of hearings for the appointment of Gerald Ford as Richard Nixon’s vice-president—the first time a vice-president had reached office in that way, thanks to Spiro Agnew’s resignation and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Claiborne said Cannon told him he was really impressed with his work.
But it was still a big surprise when Cannon put Claiborne up for a federal judgeship in 1978. It was also controversial—and that’s an understatement. To be fair, part of the problem was that Claiborne had represented Binion and others the federal government had targeted for mob ties, real and alleged. And it happened at a time that the FBI was taking a much closer look at organized crime. A lot of Nevadans felt like they were a target. Certainly Claiborne and his allies would end up feeling that way.
Making matters more controversial, Nevada got a new FBI agent-in-charge, Joseph Yablonsky. Yablonsky said he had been sent to plant the American flag in Nevada, which impressed some and didn’t exactly endear him to others. He couldn’t believe Claiborne, with his background, was a federal judge. Meanwhile, the organized crime task force was targeting several Nevada officials, including Claiborne. It would get nasty, as we will see next time.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia/The United States government - The U.S. Government archives
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