FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Retired Justices as Recusal Subs, Redux

Posted in Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on August 9, 2010

Bob Barnes of the Washington Post revisits the possibility of rotating retired justices onto the Court when an active one recuses him- or herself:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) is pondering whether a change is needed. He’s considering legislation that would allow a retired member of the Supreme Court to replace a justice who has recused himself — or herself — in a particular case.

This would avoid the court potentially splitting 4 to 4 on a case and, Leahy hopes, encourage justices to recuse themselves more often when there is an appearance of partiality.

This idea was first publicized by the National Law Journal soon after Justice Stevens, upon announcing his retirement, suggested the idea to Leahy.  I wrote then about the possible political motivations and jurisprudential consequences:

This seems to me a politically loaded suggestion.  There has already been much talk about Kagan’s potentially high recusal rate over the next few terms as the Court continues to hear cases that her office had briefed in the lower courts.  On divisive issues, Kagan’s absence would lead to 5-3 victories for conservatives or ideological deadlocks at 4-4.

I cannot imagine that the GOP members of the Judiciary Committee will agree to this plan.  If Kagan does not recuse herself on a case in which a conservative may be obligated to do so, two of the substitutes–Souter and Stevens–would be a fifth vote on the left.  It is not inconceivable that these two retired ringers could cut away at the Roberts Court’s business-friendly precedents, as the Court sometimes goes shorthanded on cases concerning corporations in which justices may own stock.

O’Connor, too, exited the Court to the left of Anthony Kennedy on campaign financechurch-and-stateabortion, andaffirmative action cases – all issues that have been cut back since Alito succeeded her.  However, recusals on these cases are less likely.  That is, unless some advocacy group somehow finds a not-too-distant relative of Justice Scalia who is an abortion doctor in Nebraska that is willing to be a named plaintiff in a federal case.

Barnes’s article today echoes my sentiments:

at some point, theory steps aside and reality sets in. “It’s an interesting idea,” said James Sample, a Hofstra law professor who has specialized in studying judicial recusals. “The challenge is that it’s so difficult to divorce discussion of the proposal from the individual justices who might end up replacing the recused justices.”

In other words, the bench currently consists of Stevens, O’Connor and retired justice David H. Souter, all of whom are to the left of the court’s dominant conservatives.

It is as unlikely to think Republicans would think it is a good idea to put them back in the lineup, Sample said, as it is to think Leahy would be as keen on the idea if the available replacements were, say, former chief justices William H. Rehnquist or Warren E. Burger.

2 Responses

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  1. Joe said, on August 9, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    This is a true if short-sighted reaction.

  2. SCOTUSblog » Tuesday round-up said, on August 10, 2010 at 11:13 am

    [...] replace” a recused Justice. The WSJ Law Blog’s Ashby Jones summarizes Barnes’s article, while First One @ One First’s Mike Sacks explores “the possible political motivations and jurisprudential consequences” [...]


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