Mar 29, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Dems grapple with Clarence Thomas response

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is seen with his wife, Ginni Thomas.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

House Democrats are split over how to approach what they mostly agree is a clear conflict of interest for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Why it matters: Thomas has thus far resisted calls to recuse himself from election-related cases amid revelations about the activism of his wife, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, before the Jan. 6 insurrection. One remedy would be impeachment — a long shot, as well as a rarity in the nation's history.

State of play: While progressive Democrats like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) are already talking about impeachment, party leaders are mostly hesitant or seeking further investigation.

  • Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told Axios it's "too early" to discuss impeachment or other punishments as the matter is probed.
  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, would only say Tuesday that potential conflicts are a "serious issue that needs to be explored."

Yes, but: Progressive Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said they've heard from "furious" constituents demanding accountability — specifically impeachment.

The backstory: The Jan. 6 committee is considering requesting testimony from Ginni Thomas over exchanges with former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in which she offered input on efforts to overturn the election.

  • The House Judiciary Committee has been floated as a vehicle to probe what potential conflicts that created for Justice Thomas.

What they're saying: Twenty-two Democrats sent Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts a letter demanding answers on "potential conflicts" and calling for ethics reform.

  • Reps. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who signed the letter, told Axios calls for further action are premature. “What we should do is investigate the situation and then take appropriate action,” Ross said.
  • Huffman argued that Thomas’ rulings on Jan. 6 cases already warrant action, saying, "I am surprised that anyone thinks asking him politely to recuse himself in the future is an adequate response, based on everything we know.”

Reality check: While impeachment is Congress' only tangible cudgel against judicial misconduct, it's an incredible reach that would require near-unanimous support from House Democrats and at least 17 Republican votes in the Senate.

  • Only one Supreme Court justice has ever been impeached — more than 200 years ago — and he was acquitted by the Senate.
  • "I think it's unlikely, but I think it should be considered," Schakowsky said.
  • Huffman thinks his House Democratic colleagues, at least, will eventually coalesce. "They were slow to come around to impeachment the first time [with Donald Trump], and then it became something that they just couldn't deny," he said.
Go deeper