Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s actions have invited an impeachment inquiry into what he knew about efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and how he acted upon that knowledge. Thomas has always been a controversial justice. During his more than 30 years on the high court, he has regularly faced criticism for abusing his position. Up to this point, the court’s longest-serving justice has avoided accountability. But Thomas’s scandalous approach to his responsibilities has caught up with him. E-mails reveal that his wife, Ginni Thomas, participated in efforts to overturn the 2020 president election in the weeks leading up to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. That insurrection is the subject of a congressional inquiry that former president Donald Trump has tried at thwart at every turn. In January, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s attempt to block the release of presidential records to the House committee leading that investigation.
There was only one dissenter: Clarence Thomas.
Seen in the context of the revelation that Ginni Thomas hectored members of the Trump administration and Congress to overturn the election result, the prospect that Clarence Thomas’s dissent was motivated by a desire to hide details of inappropriate activity by his wife and others raises sufficient concern to justify an impeachment inquiry. The point of that inquiry should be to answer the essential questions asked last week by veteran broadcaster Dan Rather after the latest revelations about Ginni Thomas’s actions: “What does Clarence Thomas know? And when did he know it?”
If it is proven that Clarence Thomas knew of his wife’s “Release the Kraken” texts urging then–White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to ramp up efforts to overturn the election results and that the justice used his position to try to prevent investigators from sharing that knowledge, he should be removed from the court for precisely the sort of abuse that the founders feared when they established the accountability powers outlined in the Constitution.
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It was Alexander Hamilton who argued for inclusion of an expansive impeachment power in the Constitution, explaining that a process was needed to guarantee that the people’s representatives would have “the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons who [hold positions of public] trust, in order either to their removal from office, or to punishment which admit of it.” While the impeachment standard that Hamilton and his compatriots proposed is usually thought of in the context of presidents, most of the impeachments that have gone to trial over the past 235 years have involved judges—including Supreme Court justices—who under Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution are only allowed to “hold their Offices during good Behaviour.”
That’s a vague term, to be sure. But the Brennan Center argues, correctly I believe, that judicial impeachments have “historically been limited to cases of serious ethical or criminal misconduct.”
By any honest measure of how jurists can and should be held to account, Justice Thomas has met the standard that requires an impeachment inquiry.
This is not about what Ginni Thomas did, although no one should lose sight of the fact that, as The Washington Post explains, a politically connected member of the Washington establishment “repeatedly pressed White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pursue unrelenting efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in a series of urgent text exchanges in the critical weeks after the vote.” This is about what Clarence Thomas, a sworn and duty-bound defender of the Constitution who was in a position to facilitate an inquiry into gross wrongdoing on the part of Trump and his associates, did to thwart accountability.
As Zac Petkanas, a former aide to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, explained, “This is a full blown crisis of legitimacy for the Supreme Court. Ginni Thomas helped organize a coup attempt against the US government and Justice Thomas abused his office to try to cover it up. Enormous damage has been done to the institution.” That damage must be addressed, and Sarah Lipton-Lubet, the executive director of the Take Back the Court Action Fund, outlined an appropriate course of action when she put the impeachment option on the table.
Arguing that “Ginni Thomas was not merely a bystander during the January 6 insurrection and she can no longer be treated as such,” she explained that “Justice Thomas has repeatedly been the Court’s lone holdout stonewalling transparency on matters of the insurrection and efforts to overturn the 2020 Election, dissenting from the Court’s decision to allow the House investigative panel to access key Trump administration documents and disagreeing with the Court’s decision not to take up a case that threatened the legitimacy of mail-in ballots in the 2020 Election.”
With these facts understood, Lipton-Lubet concluded:
Given that Justice Thomas has already made known he won’t recuse himself from cases related to his wife’s right-wing activism, and the damning evidence of his wife’s involvement in this attack on our democracy, Thomas is clearly unfit to serve on the nation’s highest Court. Clarence Thomas must immediately resign from his seat on the Supreme Court. If he refuses, Congress must move to impeach him. The integrity of the Court, our judicial system, and our democracy as a whole depends on it.
That is not a radical demand. It is in keeping with the intents of the impeachment power, which was established to guard against the corruption of not just the executive branch but the courts as well, and which remains our nation’s most vital tool for assuring that positions of public trust do not become the playthings of political and judicial charlatans.
The Constitution provides more than enough space to justify an impeachment resolution targeting Thomas, and the enquiry that would extend from it. The challenge is to get members of Congress to take seriously their oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
One member who is bearing allegiance to her oath is Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who reviewed the evidence of Ginni Thomas’s advocacy for “unrelenting efforts” to steal the 2020 election and Justice Thomas’s solo dissent against the release of Trump’s January 6 documents and declared, “Clarence Thomas needs to be impeached.” Her colleagues should join her in accepting that the time has come to hold Justice Thomas to account.
John NicholsJohn Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and the author of the new book Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis (Verso). He’s also the author of The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics, from Verso; Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books; and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.