Although we commonly refer to justices on the federal bench as being appointed “for life,” Article III of the Constitution says rather that judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” Violations of this standard, the Constitution stipulates, are determined via impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate. A total of 15 federal judges have been impeached—on charges ranging from drunkenness and mental instability to bribery, perjury, and treason. Eight were removed from office, including Robert Archbald, who in 1910 took his wife on a trip to Europe paid for by Henry Cannon, an officer of railroad and coal companies that sometimes had business before the court.
Archbald’s wife testified that Cannon was her cousin and that the two families frequently enjoyed traveling together. The New York Times described Archbald’s testimony, in which he admitted accepting the gifts but denied any impropriety, as “strong in his defense.” But the Senate felt otherwise, and he was convicted.
The corrupt relationship between Clarence and Ginni Thomas and the Texas billionaire and right-wing donor Harlan Crow clearly exceeds the standards set by Archbald’s impeachment. As ProPublica’s stunning investigation has revealed, Crow—who not only picked up the tab for luxury travel by the Thomases but also bought the justice’s childhood home (where his mother still lives, rent-free)—was a member of the founding committee of the Club for Growth, a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, and a donor to other right-wing groups that have all filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court. Thomas’s promise to amend his disclosure is as risible as a bank robber’s vow to give back the money.
Given his wife’s strenuous efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and the fact that he was the court’s lone vote against the ruling that forced Donald Trump to turn over documents to the National Archives, Thomas has also easily met the standard used to remove Judge Halsted Ritter. In 1933, Ritter was accused of accepting kickbacks and of tax evasion, but was convicted only of conduct sufficient “to bring his court into scandal and disrepute, to the prejudice of said court and public confidence in the Federal judiciary.”
The relevant question, it would seem, is not whether Thomas is plausibly guilty, but whether the Democrats have the political courage to do anything about it. That’s a test congressional Democrats have already failed once—and at a time when the party had sufficient control of the House to easily approve articles of impeachment.
Now, of course, the Democratic Caucus has a better excuse for inaction, since Republicans control the House and the Senate remains unlikely to convict. But there is good reason to proceed regardless. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently pointed out, Thomas’s corruption has reached “cartoonish” proportions. Her call for an independent investigation has been joined by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Hank Johnson.
But Democrats will have to do much more than that if they want to be seen as anything other than a party of impotent hand-wringers. They’ll have to seriously pursue impeachment, which requires just a bare majority and is far from out of reach given the divisions among House Republicans.
Even without control of the House, Democrats lead Senate committees with enough power to compel testimony and inform the public about the scale of the corruption. Normally, the Judiciary Committee would be first in line. But Dianne Feinstein’s mental incapacity—an open scandal currently hidden behind references to a case of “shingles” from which she is expected to recover—has deprived the committee of the majority vote needed not only to investigate Thomas but also to confirm President Biden’s nominees to the federal bench. Again, Democrats seem more disposed to make excuses than to take action. That, too, is a scandal.
It may well suit the party’s corporate-friendly, Wall Street–funded leadership to posture about its commitment to working people while failing to act—not just on Thomas but on student loan relief, voting rights, and abortion access. But voters won’t be fooled forever by politicians who don’t actually fight for them. If Democrats want to show they mean business, they could do a lot worse than cleaning house by removing Feinstein—and then impeaching Clarence Thomas.