Supreme Court Recusal Bill Introduced

For several weeks now, more and more people have been paying attention to the general absence of enforceable standards for the recusal of Supreme Court Justices from cases in which their impartiality is in question. Rep. Chris Murphy (CT) has introduced a bill, cosponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY), that would introduce significant reforms to the manner in which Supreme Court Justices recuse themselves – or don't – from cases in which their impartiality may reasonably be questioned.

Currently, Justices decide for themselves whether they will recuse themselves. They do not need to state the reasons for their decision to recuse or not to recuse, and their decisions are non-reviewable. This can be a problem. As Talking Points Memo reports:

Justices Thomas and Scalia have been under frequent fire in liberal circles over their attendance at conferences sponsored by Koch Industries in recent years, a company whose owners have been major financial backers of conservative political causes. Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, runs a conservative nonprofit group, Liberty Central, and some have suggested her activism against President Obama's health care legislation could be a conflict of interest for her husband if the new health care reform law -- as expected -- reaches the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas raised eyebrows this weekend when he said in a speech at a banquet that his wife was working "in defense of liberty" and that they "love the same things, we believe in the same things."

Rep. Murphy discussed this at an event yesterday to generate support for his reform bill.

"The problem is the only person who can decide whether Justice Thomas can recuse himself is Justice Thomas," Murphy told reporters at a press conference outside the Capitol. "That's wrong and that needs to change."

Fortunately, by the time the Supreme Court hears the healthcare case, Americans might not have to rely only on Justice Thomas' goodwill. As described on Rep. Murphy's website, his bill would:

  • apply the Judicial Conference's Code of Conduct, which applies to all other federal judges, to Supreme Court justices. This would allow the public to access more timely and detailed information when an outside group wants to have a justice participate in a conference, such as the funders of the conference;
  • require the justices to simply publicly disclose their reasoning behind a recusal when they withdraw from a case;
  • require the Court to develop a process for parties to a case before the Court to request a decision from the Court, or a panel of the Court, regarding the potential conflict of interest of a particular Justice.

Until the bill passes, we will continue to strongly urge Justice Thomas to recuse himself from future healthcare reform cases, as requested by Rep. Weiner and 73 of his colleagues.

PFAW