After a spate of U.S. Supreme Court decisions were released this past week—including an unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that guaranteed abortion rights across the country—protestors are now calling for the federal government to take action against justices who they claim have not been honest with the American people.
On Sunday, representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined those calls in a television interview, in which she said impeachment should be “very seriously considered” if justices lied in their confirmation hearings about their intent to overturn Roe v. Wade—presumably referring to justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, both of whom seemed to testify under oath that Roe v. Wade was a settled legal precedent.
Ocasio-Cortez also took aim at justice Clarence Thomas, for his refusal to recuse himself from cases regarding the 2020 election and 2021 insurrection, after it was revealed that Thomas’s wife was involved in efforts from the Trump campaign to overturn Biden’s victory.
If you were wondering if it was possible to remove Supreme Court justices after they are confirmed to their lifetime appointments, the answer is yes. The framers of the U.S. Constitution included a process to do just that. That said, it has never really been done successfully. Yet.
Section 1 of Article 3 of the Constitution says:
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
This means that the justices hold office as long as they choose and can only be removed from office by impeachment. The only Justice to be impeached was back in 1805, when Associate Justice Samuel Chase—who was appointed by President George Washington—was accused of allowing his political views to interfere with his decisions and “tending to prostitute” the court and his position. (You can read the riveting account on the U.S. Senate’s website.) The House of Representatives passed Articles of Impeachment against him, but he was acquitted by the Senate.
However, the threat of impeachment proceedings has led to the resignation of a justice: In 1969, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigned before he could be impeached for taking $20,000 a year for life from the family of a Wall Street titan in jail for SEC violations.
As a 2010 story in the Washington Post points out, people on both sides of the political spectrum have for years called for justices to be impeached—from Chief Justice Earl Warren to Justice Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. None have succeeded.
That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t give it the old college try, though, when the situation calls for it.
June 27, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect current events regarding recent Supreme Court decisions.