Jill Abramson at New York Magazine believes she’s assembled a case for demanding the impeachment of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. She’s been assembling some of the details of allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas above and beyond the more famous story involving Anita Hill. As many as four other women have made similar claims, with the latest being an Alaska attorney named Moira Smith. In 1999 Smith attended a dinner party where she claims that the SCOTUS justice grabbed her inappropriately twice.
Abramson believes that putting all of these stories in context and considering the impact that Thomas has on votes affecting the rights of women adds up to a case for impeachment.
[G]iven the evidence that’s come out in the years since, it’s also time to raise the possibility of impeachment. Not because he watched porn on his own time, of course. Not because he talked about it with a female colleague — although our understanding of the real workplace harm that kind of sexual harassment does to women has evolved dramatically in the years since, thanks in no small part to those very hearings. Nor is it even because he routinely violated the norms of good workplace behavior, in a way that seemed especially at odds with the elevated office he was seeking. It’s because of the lies he told, repeatedly and under oath, saying he had never talked to Hill about porn or to other women who worked with him about risqué subject matter.
Lying is, for lawyers, a cardinal sin. State disciplinary committees regularly institute proceedings against lawyers for knowingly lying in court, with punishments that can include disbarment. Since 1989, three federal judges have been impeached and forced from office for charges that include lying. The idea of someone so flagrantly telling untruths to ascend to the highest legal position in the U.S. remains shocking, in addition to its being illegal. (Thomas, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on a detailed list of queries.)
This would certainly be an unusual event if it happened. In the history of the country, only one SCOTUS justice has been impeached. (That was Samuel Chase in 1804. He was later acquitted by the Senate and remained on the court until his death seven years later.) The closest anyone else really came was Abe Fortas, who resigned from the bench in 1969 under the threat of impeachment. So the mechanism for removing a justice exists and has even been attempted once, but would this prove fruitful?
This is where we once again come to the difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion in the various Me Too incidents under discussion. Thomas wouldn’t be prosecuted before a jury of his peers over these allegations. Impeachment is a political act by definition. It would require a majority in the House to essentially indict him if the House Committee on the Judiciary found grounds to do so and then two-thirds of the Senate to convict him. There are accusations against Clarence Thomas, but he’s continually denied all of them. Physical evidence is pretty much out of the question, so they would need to rely on how much weight they give to the testimony of several women regarding events which took place decades ago.
Since it’s impossible to separate the politics out of this, we have to at least wonder whether the Democrats would be onboard with this idea. While they might like to see a conservative justice taken down, the end result for them could be worse than any satisfaction they derived from it this year. Clarence Thomas will turn 70 this year, and while his health seems fine and his mind is still sharp, that’s about the age where the clock starts ticking toward retirement if he ever plans on doing so. Impeaching him any time between now and next year (at the absolute soonest) would mean that President Trump would be dredging up another name from his list and nominating a replacement. This would likely be someone much younger and every bit as conservative as Thomas.
It’s an interesting question in theory, but it seems to me that the hurdles ahead of Jill Abramson’s suggestion are enough to stop this from happening. I’m guessing that this never even gets brought up in committee.