Q&A: Supreme Court Ethics & Conflicts
Got a question about the Supreme Court’s ethics oversight or Justice Clarence Thomas’ conflict of interest? Wondering how Thomas’ wife’s job might compromise his judgment, or why the mere appearance of bias matters? Lay it on us. We’ll answer each and every question. Because it’s critical that everyone know and understand what’s happening here.
Answers to questions will be posted over the next few days, in no particular order. Keep sending your questions and we’ll keep answering them!
Question: Has Thomas addressed the issue in any way or even acknowledged the possibility of there being a problem? (submitted by David W Yuhnke via Facebook)
Answer: Justice Thomas has not commented on the possibility of a conflict of interests. In response to another letter from Common Cause, Justice Thomas amended his annual financial disclosure forms to include his wife’s sources of income. His only comment came in the letter he filed with the amended forms: “It has come to my attention that information regarding my spouse’s employment required in Part III B of my financial disclosure report was inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”
Comment: Common Cause finds this explanation implausible given that Justice Thomas correctly disclosed his wife’s income for several years before the period in question. Additionally, his stature as one of the top nine legal experts in the country make it unlikely that he would misunderstand simple yes-or-no questions.
Question: Has any Supreme Court justice ever been impeached? (submitted by Liz Yurko Carmer via Facebook)
Answer: Associate Justice Samuel Chase, who had served in he Continental Congress and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was appointed to the Supreme Court by President George Washington on February 4, 1796. Justice Chase was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1804 for making partisan political remarks from the bench. However, he was acquitted by the Senate and continued to serve on the court until his death on June 19, 1811.
In 1969, Associate Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the court under threat of impeachment for alleged financial improprieties.
Comment: Chase’s impeachment is most notable not for its outcome–Chase was not convicted–but for its long-term implications for members of the judiciary. American judges are generally expected to abstain from partisan politics in order to maintain impartiality and avoid the appearance of bias.
Question: Is it possible to impeach a Supreme Court justice? (submitted by Thomas Perl via Facebook)
Answer: Article I, Sections 2 and 3, of the Constitution address the grounds for impeachment: “the President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The definition of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ has been subject to ongoing debate. In 1960, then-Representative Gerald Ford said “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
Comment: Though it seems ambiguous now, the phrase ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ likely held more specific meaning to the framers of the Constitution, who were familiar with its use in the British parliament. The phrase was explained by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 65 as “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”