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Can a Supreme Court justice be removed? Yes, and here’s how

Can a Supreme Court justice be removed? Yes, and here’s how
[Photo: Andrew Harnik – Pool/Getty Images]

If you were watching the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and, for no particular reason, were wondering if it was possible to remove a Supreme Court justice after he was confirmed to his lifetime appointment, 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.

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