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Judicial Ethics & Recusal

Robust judicial recusal standards are vital to achieving unbiased decisionmaking. The Brennan Center supports best practices regarding when and how judges should step aside from cases in the face of potential conflicts of interest.

Overview

Judges are gener­ally required to step aside from decid­ing cases when “the judge’s impar­ti­al­ity might be reas­on­ably ques­tioned.” However, while more than 90 percent of voters believe judges should step aside from cases involving major campaign support­ers, only a hand­ful of states offer clear stand­ards for when judi­cial campaign spend­ing warrants recusal. 

Many states, along with the federal courts, also lack proced­ural safe­guards for resolv­ing recusal motions filed by litig­ants. Most often, it is the judges them­selves who assess their own biases without any inde­pend­ent review.

The Bren­nan Center has developed detailed recom­mend­a­tions on reform­ing judi­cial recusal. Judges should be required to step aside from cases when they are the bene­fi­ciar­ies of substan­tial spend­ing in support of their elec­tion. To make it easier for judges to identify poten­tial conflicts, litig­ants should be required to disclose any expendit­ures they’ve made in connec­tion with a judge’s elec­tion. Finally, judges should­n’t be put in a posi­tion where they are assess­ing their own poten­tial biases. Courts should provide for an inde­pend­ent review process when judges are asked to step aside from cases.

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