Democrats call for ‘action’ against Supreme Court after Trump ruling on immunity

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to grant presidential immunity for official acts — which was expected to benefit Donald Trump in his Jan. 6 trial — has prompted renewed calls to remove or otherwise “aggressively surveil” conservative members of the court.

The day the ruling was made, New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vowed to launch impeachment proceedings when Congress reconvenes next week. But that would be a long shot politically.

“The Supreme Court has been consumed by a corruption crisis beyond its control,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a social media post. She did not elaborate on who she would target and has not responded to a request for clarification from ABC News. “Today’s ruling is an assault on American democracy. It is up to Congress to defend our nation from this authoritarian overthrow.”

Another New York Democrat, Rep. Joe Morelle, said he will propose a constitutional amendment, but that is also a dead end.

“I will introduce a constitutional amendment to reverse SCOTUS’s damaging decision and ensure that no president is above the law. This amendment will do what SCOTUS did not: prioritize our democracy,” he posted on X.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have long sought to hold the court more accountable following recent reports of justices accepting trips and other gifts. They have called on Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to recuse themselves from cases related to Jan. 6.

What the court said and the response

The court ruled that Trump is entitled to some immunity from criminal prosecution, including immunity for actions taken to overturn the results of the 2020 election. However, the case was remanded back to the district court to sort out what charges can stand: what are “official acts” and what are “unofficial acts” that do not qualify for immunity.

According to experts, this will delay any potential trial until after the November elections.

In the court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a president’s motives are not relevant to determining whether an official act is subject to immunity, nor to whether an act allegedly violated a generally applicable law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued forcefully that the ruling makes the president “a king above the law.” She said it is a blow to the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution and the American system of government, which generally states that “no one is above the law.”

Democrats also reacted with outrage.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Minority Leader, criticized the decision and called for more oversight and action on the nation’s highest court. But with Republicans in control of the House, there are limits to what Democrats can do on their own.

“House Democrats will aggressively oversee the Supreme Court and take legislative action to ensure that the far-right majority of justices adheres to the Constitution,” Jeffries said in a statement.

Republicans hailed the decision on presidential immunity as a victory, claiming the Biden administration has used the Justice Department as a weapon against Trump.

“The President of the United States should have immunity, as should members of Congress and federal judges, which is necessary for the proper functioning of any presidency,” Rep. Elise Stefanik said in a social media post.

As criticism mounts, here are some legislative options that critics of the Supreme Court have proposed:

How would an impeachment proceed?

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 an impeachment vote 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 with good behavior.”

A simple majority of 218 votes is required to pass the articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives.

Currently, Republicans hold 219 seats and Democrats hold 213.

If approved, the articles of impeachment would be referred to the Senate, where a two-thirds majority — 67 votes — would be needed to convict. The penalty for an impeachment officer if convicted would be removal from office.

In the Senate, Democrats have 47 seats, Independents have 4 seats, and Republicans have 48.

Has a Supreme Court justice ever been impeached?

According to the Federal Judicial Center, only one Supreme Court justice has ever been impeached.

Associate Justice Samuel Chase was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1804, “on charges of arbitrary and oppressive execution of trials,” according to the center. 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 removed for allegations including improper business relationships with plaintiffs, abuse of contempt of court powers, drunkenness in court and other abuses of their office.

Three people resigned before the impeachment proceedings were completed. Only eight people were convicted.

Supreme Court shaken by recent scandals

The Supreme Court has been the target of ethical concerns in recent years after investigative news site ProPublica alleged that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito failed to disclose ties to wealthy businessmen and political donors. It also reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor used taxpayer dollars from court employees to sell her books.

Alito argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he had acted appropriately. In Thomas’s case, he said he believed he was not required to disclose those tapes. In Sotomayor’s case, the court said she and the others had been urged to follow proper protocols.

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib called for the impeachment of Alito and Thomas in June over the reports.

“We need urgent action to hold these out-of-control, corrupt extremists accountable,” Tlaib said on the House floor in June. “It is deeply troubling that the Supreme Court of the United States, our nation’s highest court, 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 their financial or personal ties to companies and groups that handle cases before the court.

These scandals led to the introduction of the Democratic-backed Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, which would require stricter oversight of justices and bind them to the same rules on disclosing gifts, travel, and income as lower court judges.

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

“It is no wonder that the public trust has been so deeply damaged,” Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said in a recent statement defending the bill. “It is unacceptable that Supreme Court justices lack enforceable ethical safeguards that allow for corruption.”

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

“This is a bill that is not designed to make the court stronger or more ethical, but to destroy a conservative court,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said last year in opposing the bill. “This is a bill to reorder the composition of how the court governs itself.”

In April 2023, all nine justices issued a joint statement arguing that they already adhered to a code of “ethical principles and practices” and opposed independent oversight.

ABC News’ Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

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