How does Congress impeach a Supreme Court justice?

Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year.
Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year.Erin Schaff/New York Times/File 2018

Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts plans Tuesday to introduce a resolution calling for an impeachment inquiry of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

She is potentially kicking off a constitutional process that closely mirrors the process for removing the president from office. So how would that work?

First, if Speaker Nancy Pelosi allows it, the House would vote on Pressley’s resolution. If passed, it would prompt the Judiciary Committee to take affidavits and depositions and issue subpoenas in connection with an impeachment inquiry of Kavanaugh, who was confirmed last fall amid public allegations of sexual assault and harassment stemming from his high school years and his time at Yale University.


Once it is given the go-ahead to start an impeachment inquiry, the Judiciary Committee has subpoena power to investigate whether or not Kavanaugh committed an impeachable offense, which are defined in the Constitution. The guidelines for impeachment are imprecise, defined in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

There is precedent for charging judges with sexual assault under “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In 2009, the House impeached Judge Samuel B. Kent for sexual assault, obstruction of justice, and lying to federal investigators. Prior to his impeachment, Kent pled guilty to obstruction of justice and admitted to assaulting former employees at his US District Court in Texas.

If the Judiciary Committee chooses to pursue articles of impeachment, the entire House would have to approve impeachment with a simple majority. If approved, an impeachment trial would begin in the Senate, who would have to vote with a 2/3 majority to convict on the articles of impeachment.

Kavanaugh’s approval vote, 50-48 in the Senate, was the closest Supreme Court vote in American history. As when he was voted onto the court, Republicans control the Senate by a 53-47 margin and GOP Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham called the allegations against Kavanaugh “unsubstantiated” and “scurrilous” respectively.


The House has impeached a single Supreme Court justice — Samuel Chase, in 1804 — and the Senate refused to convict him.

However, eight federal judges have been removed from the bench by the Senate following a successful impeachment trial. That record stands in contrast to presidential impeachment — only two presidents have been impeached and both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were acquitted in their impeachment trials in the Senate.

Peter Bailey-Wells can be reached at peter.bailey-wells@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pbaileywells.