What Does It Mean To Recuse Onself?

Perhaps you’ve never heard the word ‘recuse’ before. According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary, recuse means “to disqualify (oneself) as judge in a particular case; broadly : to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest.” Generally, we hear of judges recusing themselves from trials in order to avoid a conflict of interest. One such example involves the newest Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and her recusal from several supreme court cases because of her involvement with those cases in lower courts. The rules dictating when a justice should be recused from a case are dictated in the United States Code Title 28, Section 455, though in the end it is up to a judge to recuse him or herself from a case. Since there is little authority to compel a justices and judges to recuse themselves from a case, several attempts to legislate these guidelines have recently surfaced. This piece at the West Reference Attorney Blog does a great job of detailing these recent efforts.

What is alarming in these efforts is the fact that Senators and Representatives are railing for ethical standards to be imposed against Supreme Court Justices while at the same time they do not propose that they should be held to the same standards. Are there not numerous examples of members of Congress having conflicts of interest with legislation that is being proposed? A great example is H.R. 1148, known as the STOCK Act, that would prohibit members of Congress and federal employees from profiting, or helping others profit, from non-public information—primarily through stock and futures trading—gleaned through their access to privileged, political-based information.

These contradictions present a double standard: Justices should have concrete regulations dictating when they must recuse themselves from a case but no similar guidelines are being proposed for the legislative branch. Should a senator who owns a significant amount of stock in a medical supply or insurance company be permitted to speak on or vote for legislation that would affect his or her financial interests? (This example, though it does not involve a senator or representative, accentuates this point profoundly and extends the prospect of recusal procedures for government executives as well.)

In such a partisan political climate, how many politicians have simply fought to protect their personal economic interests rather than the well being and benefit of their constituents? If guidelines were established that required not only judges, but federal and state congressmen, federal and state executives – essentially all politicians – to recuse themselves from cases, legislation or decisions where they have a direct interest, we might be able to eliminate some of the corruption in U.S. politics. Of course, this proposal is not the best fix but it is a step in the right direction. What do you think?

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