January 4, 2012

Chief Justice defends recusal decisions in health care case

In his annual report on the state of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts defended Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan from calls that they should recuse themselves from the upcoming hearings over the constitutionality of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act:

"I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process."

Federal law requires that judges disqualify themselves when they have a financial interest in a case, have given ad-vice or expressed an opinion “concerning the merits of the particular case” or when their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” For lower court judges, such a decision can be reviewed by a higher court, but the Supreme Court has no such review.

Liberal critics have called for Justice Thomas to recuse himself due to his wife's previous employment with groups opposed to the law. Conservative critics say Justice Kagan was likely involved with aspects of the law while Solicitor General for the Obama administration.

The hearing will take place over three days in March with a decision expected in June.