Democrats call for 'action' against Supreme Court after Trump immunity ruling

Has a Supreme Court justice been impeached before? How would it work?

July 6, 2024, 11:09 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting presidential immunity for official acts -- seen as benefiting Donald Trump in his Jan. 6 trial -- has renewed calls to impeach or take other "aggressive oversight" against conservative members of the court.

The day the ruling came down, New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vowed to file articles of impeachment when Congress returns next week, although that would be a political long shot.

"The Supreme Court has become consumed by a corruption crisis beyond its control," said Ocasio-Cortez in a social media post. However, she did not explain who she would be targeting and has not yet responded to an ABC News request for clarification. "Today's ruling represents an assault on American democracy. It is up to Congress to defend our nation from this authoritarian capture."

A fellow New York Democrat, Rep. Joe Morelle, said he will propose a constitutional amendment, a similar long shot.

“I will introduce a constitutional amendment to reverse SCOTUS’ harmful decision and ensure that no president is above the law. This amendment will do what SCOTUS failed to do—prioritize our democracy,” he posted on X.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have long sought to enforce more accountability on the court in the wake of recent reports about the justices accepting travel and other gifts -- and have called on Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to recuse themselves in Jan. 6-related cases.

What the court said and reaction

The court said Trump is entitled to some immunity from criminal prosecution, including some for actions taken to overturn results of the 2020 election, but sent the case back to the trial court to sort out which charges can stand -- which are "official acts" versus "unofficial acts" not covered by immunity.

Experts say that will effectively delaying any potential trial until after the November election.

In the court's majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a president's motives are not relevant to the assessment of whether an official act is covered by immunity, nor whether an act would have allegedly violated a generally applicable law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a strong dissent, said the ruling makes the president "a king above the law," dealing a blow, she argued, to the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution and the American system of government that generally holds "no man is above the law."

Democrats joined in the outrage.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, slammed the decision, calling for increased oversight and action concerning the nation's highest court, but with Republicans controlling the House, there's a limit to what Democrats can do on their own.

"House Democrats will engage in aggressive oversight and legislative activity with respect to the Supreme Court to ensure that the extreme, far-right justices in the majority are brought into compliance with the Constitution," Jeffries said in a statement.

Republicans applauded the presidential immunity decision as a win, claiming the Biden administration has weaponized the Department of Justice against Trump.

"The President of the United States must have immunity, like Members of Congress and federal judges, which is necessary for any presidency to function properly," said Rep. Elise Stefanik in a social media post.

Amid the heightened scrutiny, here's a look at some legislative options Supreme Court critics have suggested:

PHOTO: United States Supreme Court building
STOCK IMAGE/Getty Images

How would impeachment work?

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, only Congress has the authority to remove a federal judge for "'treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" through a vote of impeachment by the House of Representatives and a trial and conviction by the Senate.

Article III of the Constitution adds that judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour."

A simple majority vote is required for the House to adopt the articles -- 218 votes -- for impeachment.

Right now, Republicans hold 219 seats and Democrats hold 213.

If approved, the articles of impeachment are then referred to the Senate, where a two-thirds vote -- 67 votes -- is needed to convict. The penalty for an impeached official upon conviction is removal from office.

In the Senate, Democrats hold 47 seats, independents hold 4 seats, and Republicans hold 48.

Has a Supreme Court justice been impeached before?

Only one Supreme Court justice has ever been impeached, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

Associate Justice Samuel Chase was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1804, "on charges of arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials," the center states. However, he was acquitted by the U.S. Senate in 1805 and remained on the Supreme Court bench.

More than a dozen federal judges have been impeached for reasons including improper business relationships with litigants, charges of abuse of the contempt power, intoxication on the bench, and other misuses of office.

Three resigned before the completion of impeachment proceedings. Only eight have been convicted.

PHOTO: Justices of the US Supreme Court pose for their official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct.7, 2022.
Justices of the US Supreme Court pose for their official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2022. (Seated from left) Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, (Standing behind from left) Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Supreme Court rocked by recent scandals

The Supreme Court has been the target of ethics concerns in recent years after investigative news outlet ProPublica alleged that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito failed to disclose ties to wealthy businessmen and political donors. It reported as well that Justice Sonia Sotomayor used taxpayer-funded court staff to help sell her books.

Alito argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he acted appropriately. In Thomas' case, he said he believed he didn't have to disclose those ties. In Sotomayor's case, the court said she and the others had been urged to follow proper protocols.

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib called for Alito's and Thomas's impeachment in June in connection with the reports.

"We need urgent action to hold these unhinged, corrupt extremists accountable," Tlaib said on the House floor in June. "It is extremely disturbing that the United States Supreme Court, the highest court of our land, is the only court that does not have an enforceable code of conduct."

Justices Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts have also been criticized for monetary or personal ties to businesses and groups with cases before the court.

These scandals have prompted the introduction of the Democrat-backed "Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act" which would mandate greater oversight of the justices and bind them to the same disclosure rules for gifts, travel and income as lower court judges.

The bill would also create a system to investigate complaints about their behavior and boost transparency around potential conflicts of interest with parties before the court. The bill was first introduced in 2023.

"It's no wonder that the public trust is being so deeply damaged," said Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in a recent statement championing the bill. "It's unacceptable the Supreme Court justices have no enforceable ethics guardrails fostering corruption."

However, some Republicans say the proposed oversight reform is an attempt to delegitimize the court.

"This is a bill not designed to make the court stronger or more ethical, but to destroy a conservative court," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham last year in opposition of the bill. "It's a bill to rearrange the makeup of how the court governs itself."

In April 2023, all nine justices released a joint statement, arguing that they already adhere to a code of "ethics principles and practices" and are in opposition to independent oversight.

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.