Okay, quick show of hands — let’s see everyone who predicted that judicial recusal would ever be a national politics headline-grabber? Anybody?
First, there was a flurry of silly coverage about whether Judge Maryanne Trump Barry would recuse from the Bridgegate-disclosure appeal. Then the media tsunami about Donald Trump’s bashing a Hispanic district judge for not recusing from the Trump University case. All the sudden, judicial recusal is right up there with Game of Thrones and gorilla-enclosure practices amongst the key issues of our age that you’re expected to be able to discuss intelligently.
Fear not, I’m here to help.
The federal standard for judicial recusal is defined by statute, 28 USC § 455 (emphasis mine):
(a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstances:
1) Where he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding;2) Where in private practice he served as lawyer in the matter in controversy, or a lawyer with whom he previously practiced law served during such association as a lawyer concerning the matter, or the judge or such lawyer has been a material witness concerning it;3) Where he has served in governmental employment and in such capacity participated as counsel, adviser or material witness concerning the proceeding or expressed an opinion concerning the merits of the particular case in controversy;4) He knows that he, individually or as a fiduciary, or his spouse or minor child residing in his household, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;5) He or his spouse, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse of such a person:i) Is a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, or trustee of a party;ii) Is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;iii) Is known by the judge to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;iv) Is to the judge’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.
That’s all pretty clear (albeit sexistly worded). Third Circuit IOP 11.2.2 elaborates on what counts as a financial interest.
Another situation not specifically mentioned in § 455(b) is where an appellate judge presided over the same case in trial court or state court. This comes up whenever a new circuit judge used to be a district or magistrate judge — that was true of six of the last seven Third Circuit appointees, so this pops up a lot. Third Circuit local rule 26.1.2 addresses this situation, requiring the parties to notify the court whenever it applies.
Okay, so that’s the standard, but what is the procedure for raising grounds for recusal? Recusal can happen either on the judge’s own initiative or at the request of a party.
Judicial-initiated recusal in the Third Circuit is covered by the circuit IOP 11.1:
11.1.1 Before cases are sent to a panel, the clerk transmits copies of the docket sheets and disclosure statements to each judge who responds promptly informing the clerk of those cases in which the judge is recused.
11.1.2 Each judge may submit to the clerk in writing those circumstances which would generally require a recusal, including names of businesses in which the judge or family members have a financial interest, names of lawyer relatives whose names may appear as counsel in the appeals, and names of law firms on whose cases the judge does not sit.
Third Circuit judges’ standing recusal lists (the second paragraph in 11.1) are not available to the public. But in the past the Third Circuit released information about at least one individual judge’s recusal practices. Howard Bashman reported that in 2000 the court disclosed that Judge Rendell recused herself from all cases in which a party or its law firm contributed over $2500 to her then-husband Edward Rendell’s political campaign, unless waived by the parties, and from any case involving such a contribution of $2500 or less if any party objected. Bashman reported in 2001 that Rendell’s contribution-related-recusal policy was on the Third Circuit’s website, but I don’t find any notices related to specific judges’ recusal policies on the website today.
Also, then-Judge Alito’s CA3 standing recusal lists were released to the Senate during his Supreme Court confirmation proceedings. He stated that his list included cases involving his sister’s law firm and, for his first four years on the court but not thereafter, cases he’d handled as a U.S. Attorney. His hearing testimony also indicated he updated his standing list annually.
Information about financial interests that could cause a judge to recuse is available from the disclosure forms that all federal judges are required to file annually. Those forms are available here (2015 reports are here [UPDATE: unfortunately now they’re behind a paywall], a searchable database is
or at least was here), and I’ve mentioned them on the blog here and here.
Also, judges occasionally pledge to recuse from certain cases during their confirmation proceedings. For example, Alito’s circuit-nomination Senate questionnaire reportedly pledged to recuse from cases he had prosecuted as U.S. Attorney or involving certain companies.
For recusal requests raised by a party, 28 USC § 144 applies:
Whenever a party to any proceeding in a district court makes and files a timely and sufficient affidavit that the judge before whom the matter is pending has a personal bias or prejudice either against him or in favor of any adverse party, such judge shall proceed no further therein, but another judge shall be assigned to hear such proceeding.
The affidavit shall state the facts and the reasons for the belief that bias or prejudice exists, and shall be filed not less than ten days before the beginning of the term at which the proceeding is to be heard, or good cause shall be shown for failure to file it within such time. A party may file only one such affidavit in any case. It shall be accompanied by a certificate of counsel of record stating that it is made in good faith.
Whether recusal is initiated by the judge or by a party, either way a judge’s decision to recuse (or not to recuse) is normally not explained to the parties or the public. I’m not aware of any Third Circuit opinions where a judge explained his or her reasons for recusing or not recusing from a case (but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happened and I’ll update the post if anyone enlightens me). In a similar vein, there are Third Circuit cases about a district judge’s failure to recuse (notably US. v. Antar), but I don’t know of any about a circuit judge’s.
Not only do judges not explain why they recused, but in many cases no one outside the court will realize it happened. As indicated by IOP 11.1 quoted above, judge-initiated recusals normally occur long before the composition of the panel is disclosed to the parties. The recused judge is replaced on the panel, IOP 12.1, and the parties are none the wiser. But, at least for cases calendared by the court, it often will be apparent from the calendar when a judge may have recused from a specific case. If judges A, B, C comprise a panel deciding five cases submitted on a given day, but judges A, B, and D are the panel deciding another case, then it’s at least a good bet that judge C recused from the case D is hearing.
It’s easier to tell when judges have recused from considering a petition for rehearing en banc, because the order granting or denying rehearing en banc lists only the judges who participated, as I explained here. (But back in 2005 then-Chief Judge Scirica reportedly found frequent errors where recused judges were listed as participating; I don’t know how much such errors still occur.)
And I’ve also blogged here about a case decided earlier this year where the entire court apparently recused (due to one judge’s indirect financial stake in the case, as best I could tell [see John’s comment below]) and so the case was decided by a conflict panel of other-circuit judges.
So there you have it, recusal in all its glory. If I’ve overlooked anything, please post a comment or email me.