Could Clarence Thomas be impeached? Experts say no

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

For more than two decades, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas enjoyed luxury trips on private jets and yachts to exotic locales thanks to the largess of his longtime travel companion, the Republican mega donor Harlan Crow, according to a ProPublica report. New reporting from the nonprofit found that Crow also bankrolled the private school education of Thomas’ grandnephew, who the Thomases had been raising as a son—a detail that a friend of the justice acknowledged as well.

The trips, which include most recently “nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef,” and the tuition payments were not disclosed in the justice’s financial disclosure reports—a potential violation of federal law, ProPublica reports.

Beyond any legal implications, the relationship between Thomas and Crow touches on a host of ethical concerns. Does Thomas’ alleged conduct rise to the level of impeachability, as some Democrats are suggesting? Impeachment, a political tool that relies on a majority consensus in the U.S. House of Representatives and a trial in the Senate, is the only mechanism for expelling justices. 

Northeastern University Professor of Law Jeremy Paul. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“What he did was just so clearly out of bounds that I don’t think there’s any defense of it,” says Jeremy R. Paul, a professor of law and former dean of the Northeastern University School of Law. “But I think the political standards of impeachment make impeachment almost virtually impossible at the moment.”

This is not the first ethics scandal Thomas has been involved in recently. Despite knowing that his wife, Virginia Thomas, was directly involved in efforts to help overturn the 2020 election in favor of former President Donald Trump, Thomas did not recuse himself from a number of cases involving the election results—an offense Paul says is equally egregious given the high standards of the court. 

The failure to disclose Crow’s alleged gifts is a violation of law that governs all federal officials—not just Supreme Court justices, Paul says. The country would be better served, he says, if Congress established an official code of conduct that clearly articulates an ethical standard to which the justices would be legally bound. 

Paul points to legislation championed by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, among others, that would establish a process of holding justices accountable, and, among other things, “strengthen recusal standards … and disclosure rules.”

Thomas has served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1991. Indeed, his alleged behavior has led to increased calls for judicial reform. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, sent the first impeachment volley Thursday afternoon. 

To date, impeachment attempts have yielded varied results when it comes to federal judges. Since the country’s founding, only 15 federal judges have ever been impeached, with eight being expelled from their posts. No Supreme Court justice has ever been removed despite two prior impeachment attempts—only one of which resulting in a Senate trial.

Thomas’ alleged actions are “terrible for the court’s image,” says Dan Urman, director of the Law and Public Policy Minor at Northeastern, who teaches courses on the Supreme Court. “But it’s unlikely anything will come of it.”

“My view is that almost nothing will get a justice removed,” Urman says. “If Democrats take over the house in 2024, they could possibly hold impeachment hearings; but there is no way that 67 senators will vote to remove Thomas.”

Urman continued: “By then, this will feel like old news. Think about how quickly the calls to impeach [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh died down in 2019.”

“The real problem is that the justices do not abide by the code of ethics that find other federal judges,” he says. “They are literally above the law. They have the last word on these matters.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.