Skip to content

With little hope of success, Democrats respond to high-court term

Actions follow rulings on Trump immunity, bump stocks and regulations

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said she would introduce articles of impeachment against Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said she would introduce articles of impeachment against Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congressional Democrats this week have kicked into a new gear their efforts to counter the conservative-controlled Supreme Court, a bid that’s likely to remain a frustrating one in an election year.

Following a series of decisions that gave former President Donald Trump broad immunity from federal charges, threw out a gun control rule and granted the courts more power over federal agencies, Democrats are raising the stakes to rein in the court with actions that have little chance of success given Republicans’ praise for many of the rulings.

Democrats, after years of frustrations with a court controlled 6-3 by Republican appointees and unable to muster bipartisan support for legislation, are pulling some of the few remaining levers they have: offering impeachment articles against Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas, deploying a House procedure to try to force a vote that could require some Republicans to buck House leadership, and promises to “work” on further Supreme Court legislation that has yet to attract GOP support.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., announced she would introduce a pair of impeachment resolutions Wednesday, saying that the justices’ behavior “represents nothing less than a constitutional crisis.” The resolutions accused Thomas and Alito of failing to report millions of dollars in gifts and failing to recuse themselves from cases involving their financial interests or the 2020 election. Both of their wives are reportedly Trump supporters or sympathizers.

Ocasio-Cortez sounded realistic about the chances of impeaching sitting Supreme Court justices while in the House minority.

“At this point it is about what the measurement of success is. I feel like this action is necessary at this point,” Ocasio-Cortez said Wednesday. “I know what I have control over. I don’t necessarily have control over the entire body.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s move followed a speech by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Monday promising Senate action on legislation to curb the court. Schumer said he would work on legislation to alter the justices’ decision granting broad immunity to Trump and reverse the decision granting the justices more say over federal agencies.

“As we work on this important matter, we’ll also keep working on other proposals to reassert Congress’ Article I authority to rein in the abuses of our federal judiciary. The American people are tired, just tired, of justices who think they are beyond accountability,” Schumer said.

Democrats have proposed a variety of bills to change the court, including term limits and changing the court’s ethics standards.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last summer approved for the first time legislation to change the court’s ethics standards, among other provisions. Amid the last weeks of the Supreme Court term last month, Senate Democrats attempted to pass the legislation by unanimous consent but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., objected.

“It’s all political,” Graham, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday. He and other Republicans have framed the push from Democrats as undermining an institution that is ruling in ways they don’t like, and have largely said they don’t see a need for Congress to act beyond a nonbinding ethics code issued by the justices last year.

“I think the legislation Democrats have proposed is a real attack on the court,” Graham said. “This is going nowhere, there’s no Republican support for it.”

Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats have held out hope that they may get Republican support for proposals like one from her and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., to tighten gift rules for federal judges, but that has yet to materialize.

Republicans have so far celebrated many of the court’s recent decisions. Several conservatives held a press conference Wednesday lauding the federal agency decision, which overturned a deference to federal agencies known as the Chevron doctrine. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Congress should take more steps to rein in federal agencies.

“Overturning Chevron will prove to be at best a minor development unless we as a Congress take seriously our dedication to reforming the process so that it more closely reflects what the Constitution already requires,” Lee said.

House leadership has gotten behind that push, sending out a series of letters Wednesday asking federal agencies to reexamine their rules following the Supreme Court decision.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the sole Republican to sign onto any Supreme Court ethics legislation in the last two years, told reporters Tuesday it was on the court and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., to address concerns about the justices’ behavior.

“My hope would be that the court addresses this, but does so in a more robust manner,” Murkowski said.

Discharge petition on bump stocks

Separately on Wednesday, Rep. Dina Titus announced she intended to use a discharge petition to force the House to vote on a bill to officially ban so-called bump stocks following a Supreme Court decision last month that tossed out a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives rule restricting the devices.

The Trump administration rule classified the bump stock, which allows a shooter to use a rifle’s recoil to “bump” the gun back into the trigger and mimic automatic fire, as a machine gun under federal law. The justices ruled that the ATF had exceeded the statute, and left it to Congress to pass legislation.

The discharge petition, which uses House rules to move a bill out of committee to the floor, along with a separate procedure allowing a “special rule” to force floor consideration, requires signatures from a majority of House members. Titus’ discharge petition would require the support of at least a handful of Republicans to force a vote on the House floor.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the bump stocks bill, said backers of the discharge petition have received “absolutely no response” from the five Republicans who have co-sponsored similar legislation in the past.

A spokesperson for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the lone Republican co-sponsor of the measure this Congress, could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

Senate Democrats attempted to pass a similar bill by unanimous consent last month but ran into Republican objections. On Tuesday, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said that there had been some possible interest in the legislation, but getting it passed was another matter entirely.

“I know that there was some interest from some Republicans to try to find some common ground. I mean, it’s a little hard to believe we’ll find it between now and the election,” Murphy said.

Recent Stories

Amid tense election, Secret Service working with already boosted budget

Biden condemns attempted Trump assassination, calls for ‘unity’

Trump rushed from stage after gunshots fired at rally

These Democrats have called on Biden to quit the race

Gaffe track — Congressional Hits and Misses

Trump’s presidential office hours were the shortest since FDR, Biden’s not far behind him