Harry E. Claiborne

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For the lighthouse keeper, see Harry C. Claiborne.

Harry Eugene Claiborne (July 5, 1917 – January 19, 2004) was a United States district court judge who was impeached for tax evasion. He was only the fifth person in U.S. history to be removed from office through impeachment by the U.S. Congress, and the first since Halsted Ritter in 1936.

Claiborne was born in McRae, Arkansas and graduated from Cumberland School of Law at Cumberland University in 1941. He was admitted to both the Arkansas and Nevada bars, and spent two years as a deputy prosecutor before becoming a well-known defense attorney in Las Vegas.[1]

Claiborne ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1964, losing in the Democratic primary. On July 25, 1978, Claiborne was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Nevada vacated by Bruce R. Thompson, on the recommendation of Claiborne's former opponent, Senator Howard Cannon. Claiborne was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 11, 1978, and received his commission the same day. He served as chief judge from 1980 to 1986.[1]

Claiborne was indicted by a federal grand jury for bribery, fraud, and tax evasion in December 1983. In April 1984, however, the jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. He was tried again in July on only the evasion charges and was found guilty the next month, making him the first federal judge ever convicted of crimes while on the bench. Claiborne was sentenced to two years in prison in October, and was in prison from May 1986 to October 1987. Harry E. Claiborne was impeached by the United States House of Representatives on July 22, 1986, on two charges of tax evasion and one charge of bringing disrepute to the federal judiciary. The U.S. Senate convicted him on October 9, 1986 and removed him from office.[1]

Many lawyers and judges in the Nevada legal community regarded it as a case of selective prosecution. Claiborne long maintained he was too busy on the bench to pay close attention to his tax return, noting he never even looked at the document until his accountant brought it to him. "I asked how much I owed, and I wrote a check."[2] According to Nevada State District Judge Michael Cherry in 2004, "He was very, very fair to criminal defendants to his detriment. I think that is why the government was so interested in prosecuting him and knocking him off the bench."[3]

Claiborne was allowed to begin practicing law again in Nevada in 1987, in a decision by the Nevada Supreme Court that implicitly questioned the federal prosecution. His attorney was future Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. On January 19, 2004, he committed suicide in Las Vegas, Nevada, apparently due to his health battles with cancer and Alzheimer's disease.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Claybourn, Joshua (2016). Born of Clay (1st ed.). Newburgh, Ind.: Claybourn Genealogical Society. ISBN 978-0-9906516-2-8. Retrieved 6 September 2016. 
  2. ^ Koch, Ed; German, Jeff (20 January 2004). "Former U.S. Judge Claiborne dies at 86". Las Vegas Sun. Retrieved 3 January 2015. 
  3. ^ Kalil, J. M.; Thevenot, Carrie Geer (21 January 2004). "Ex-federal judge Claiborne kills self". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Archived from the original on 17 January 2013. Retrieved 3 January 2015. 
  4. ^ "Harry Claiborne, 86, Is Dead; Was Removed as U.S. Judge". New York Times. 22 January 2004. Retrieved 3 January 2015. 

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Legal offices
Preceded by
Bruce Rutherford Thompson
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Nevada
Succeeded by
Philip Martin Pro