House Democrats will convene a hearing on Supreme Court ethics and the prospect of impeaching justices on Wednesday, in response to the disclosure of contentious text messages from Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas.
The texts from Ginni Thomas to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, sparked a political firestorm in Washington, igniting Democratic outrage and calls for Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from decisions involving the election and former President Trump.
Republicans have largely come to Clarence Thomas’s defense.
A memo distributed to members ahead of Wednesday’s hearing by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), chairman of the House Judiciary courts subcommittee, explores codes of conduct for federal judges outside the Supreme Court and summarizes legislative proposals to impose ethics requirements on Supreme Court justices.
Notably, the document mentions Congress’s impeachment jurisdiction under the Constitution as one type of oversight of Supreme Court judges’ behavior.
The document said that “threats or inquiries of impeachment as a means of regulating the conduct of Supreme Court justices have had varying effects.”
Justice Abe Fortas resigned in 1969 due to ethical issues, but Justice William O. Douglas remained on the bench for five years after the House Judiciary Committee decided on party lines to take no action after an impeachment probe in 1970.
Only one Supreme Court judge has ever been impeached by the House, Samuel Chase in 1804, although he was not convicted a year later by the Senate.
The committee’s interest in Supreme Court ethics problems is clearly driven by questions surrounding Thomas.
According to the document, proposals for the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code gained traction among senators “following the reporting about text messages between the spouse of an associate justice and the then-White House Chief of Staff.”
I realize we're bombarded with crazy shit every day. But we can't let the Ginni & Clarence Thomas scandal slip through the cracks. We're talking about the highest court in our country being corrupt, for cryin' out loud.
— Deano J (@DeanoJ14) April 23, 2022
“The Supreme Court has long operated as though it were above the law. But, Justice Clarence Thomas’ refusal to recuse himself from cases surrounding January 6th, despite his wife’s involvement, raises serious ethical — and legal — alarm bells,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), vice chair of the House Judiciary courts subcommittee.
“The need for strong, enforceable ethics laws is clearer than ever. We have to do more to hold the Court accountable and restore public trust through a binding code of ethics and recusal.”
In cases before the court, Thomas, the most senior associate justice, is a dependable conservative vote. Republicans have backed him in the aftermath of his wife’s actions.
Some Republicans fear that Democrats are setting the basis for more action against him with this hearing.
“Let’s be honest: this hearing is just the first step towards impeaching Justice Thomas,” a senior GOP official stated.
Ginni Thomas has been a fixture in conservative activist circles for decades, but her activities came under increased attention after a January New Yorker feature raised concerns about whether her acts represent a conflict of interest for Justice Thomas.
The House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack released text messages from Thomas to Meadows in March, urging him not to let Trump concede the 2020 election, asserting without evidence that there was election fraud, and expressing frustration that Republican members of Congress were not doing more to help overturn the results.
This infuriated many even more, since Clarence Thomas might decide on matters involving the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 Capitol assault. A group of 24 Democrats in the House and Senate wrote to Chief Justice John Roberts and Thomas, requesting that Thomas recuse himself from such matters.
Others went a step farther. Johnson demanded Thomas’ resignation. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said that his refusal to recuse himself from topics affecting his wife may result in further inquiry and “serve as grounds for impeachment.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) referred to Ginni Thomas as a “proud contributor to a coup of our country” and reiterated her call for the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code.
Impeaching Clarence Thomas would be a difficult political task, and numerous House Democrats have said that they are unsure whether his actions meet that standard. More appear to be interested in using legislative means to impose ethics standards on the Supreme Court.
Johnson presented the Supreme Court Ethics Act last year in order to establish a judicial rule of conduct for the Supreme Court. Jones was a co-sponsor of the Twenty-First Century Courts Act, which would enact a similar code of conduct for the justices.
“Recent reports that the text messages of a justice’s spouse urging the overturning of a free and fair election may have been at issue in a case in front the Supreme Court — but that the justice did not recuse himself from the case — is just the latest and particularly egregious example in an unfortunately long list of illustrations as to why Supreme Court justices need to follow a formal code of ethics,” Johnson stated. “I have been calling for this sort of reform for years, and I am encouraged to see a large, bipartisan majority of the public in favor of this long overdue legislation.”
It's outrageous that Clarence Thomas voted to keep Trump White House documents about January 6th secret when his wife was messaging the Trump White House about January 6th. How is this not a bigger scandal?
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) April 19, 2022
The Wednesday hearing witness panel is crowded with advocates urging Thomas to recuse himself from cases that may seem to create a conflict of interest as a result of his wife’s text messages.
In light of his wife’s text messages, Stephen Gillers, a law professor and judicial ethics researcher at New York University, has suggested that Thomas recuse himself from cases beginning on January 6.
Justice Clarence Thomas is compromised and must recuse himself from the January 6ᵗʰ Commission. He took an oath to protect the U.S. Constitution—not his radical right–wing activist wife. pic.twitter.com/P4ksOWAe2W
— 𝖠𝗆𝖻𝖾𝗋 🌊 (@AnIllicitWriter) April 26, 2022
Donald Sherman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has also called for Thomas’s recusal and a code of conduct for the court, will also be present at the session. For years, Fix the Court’s Gabe Roth has urged Thomas to recuse himself from situations involving his wife’s involvement.
This has resulted in GOP attacks.
“For more than 30 years, Democrats have tried and failed to destroy Clarence Thomas. Their misogyny now towards his wife should be beneath them — but apparently not,” said Jonathan Wilcox, communications director to the courts subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).
The panel’s Republican witness is attorney Mark Paoletta, a Thomas defender who formerly worked in the White House for both Trump and former President George H.W. Bush, including on Thomas’ nomination.