From 2009: Justice John Roberts on oral arguments
From the "Well, if you say so..." files:
Chief Justice John Roberts said Saturday that he has "complete confidence" in his colleagues' ability to step away from cases where their personal interests are at stake, and noted that judges should not be swayed by "partisan demands."
The comment, included in Roberts' year-end report, comes after lawmakers demanded that two Justices recuse themselves from the high court's review of President Obama's health care law aimed at extending coverage to more than 30 million people. Republicans want Justice Elena Kagan off the case because of her work in the Obama administration as solicitor general, whereas Democrats say Justice Clarence Thomas should back away because of his wife's work with groups that opposed changes to the law.
While not mentioning the upcoming health care ruling, or any case in particular, Roberts' year-end report dismissed suggestions that Supreme Court Justices are subject to more lax ethical standards than lower federal courts and said each Justice is "deeply committed" to preserving the Court's role as "an impartial tribunal" governed by law.
"I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted," wrote Roberts. "They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process. I know that they each give careful consideration to any recusal questions that arise in the course of their judicial duties."
I don't know that there's anything groundbreaking about the Chief Justice expressing confidence in his court's ability to be professional. What else could he say? Neither Kagan nor Thomas have indicated that they will recuse themselves from hearing the upcoming cases on the ACA. Although it is left up to the individual justice to recuse him- or herself, there is a federal statute that states that judges should recuse themselves from any case in which their impartiality can reasonably be questioned, which I think can be argued for Thomas (and Kagan, to a far lesser degree). But Roberts thinks that the standard is different for the highest court:
Roberts says that while Supreme Court Justices follow the same general principles respecting recusal as other federal judges, “the application of those principles can differ due to the unique circumstances of the Supreme Court.”
Unlike a lower court judge, a Supreme Court Justice cannot be replaced if she steps down from a case.
“A Justice accordingly cannot withdraw from a case as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy. Rather, each Justice has an obligation to the Court to be sure of the need to recuse before deciding to withdraw from a case. ”
Justices are also required to file financial disclosure reports similar to all other federal judges. These reports disclose the Justices’ non-governmental income, investments, liabilities, gifts and reimbursements from third parties.
Frankly, Roberts made a fairly compelling argument for exactly why Thomas should recuse himself from the upcoming cases. Just like a Bush nominee to see it exactly backwards from reality.