Impeachment calls part of life for a Supreme Court justice, but few get very far.

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Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 6:03 PM

All across the country Tuesday, political incumbents are bracing for judgment from an angry electorate. So perhaps members of the Supreme Court should not be surprised that they are in somebody's sights, as well.

Justices, of course, can't be voted out. They serve for life, or as the Constitution puts it, "shall hold their Offices during good Behavior."

But that hasn't stopped calls from both the left and the right recently for the House to open impeachment hearings for, alternately, Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

None of the complaints is gaining traction, but they do seem to indicate a desire to do something about the court's rulings or recent developments that some say violate testimony given at justices' confirmation hearings.

"These are sulphurous times," said Dennis Hutchinson, a Supreme Court scholar at the University of Chicago law school. "And the only stick you can wave at a federal judge is impeachment."

He quickly noted that such demands almost never get very far.

The only justice ever served with impeachment was Samuel Chase in 1805, charged with being overtly partisan. He was cleared by the Senate and served another six years.

Those old enough will remember "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards that sprouted across the South after the court's desegregation rulings in the 1950s. And there were two impeachment attempts against Justice William O. Douglas: one for granting a brief stay of execution in the Rosenburg spy case and another for alleged financial improprieties.

Gerald R. Ford, then the House minority leader, led the latter, and the House Judiciary Committee held hearings in 1970. No credible evidence emerged, and the hearings closed without a public vote.

"But Douglas used to say that he was terrified he was going to be thrown off," said Hutchinson, a former clerk to the justice.

In Thomas' case, it is an old charge renewed. It was resurrected by the call his wife Virginia Thomas made to Anita Hill, asking her to apologize for the sexual harassment charges Hill made at Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings more than 19 years ago.

Hill instead publicized the call and repeated the accusations. Then came a former girlfriend of Thomas, who had kept her silence since the 1991 controversy.


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