By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey
September 16, 2023, in the Wall Street Journal
Justice Samuel Alito has refused a demand from Senate Democrats that he disqualify himself from a pending case because of an interview in this newspaper. One of us (Mr. Rivkin) is on the legal team representing the appellants in Moore v. U.S. and conducted the interview jointly with a Journal editor.
In a four-page statement Sept. 8, Justice Alito noted that other justices had previously sat on cases argued by lawyers who had interviewed or written books with them. “We have no control over the attorneys whom parties select to represent them,” he wrote. “We are required to put favorable or unfavorable comments and any personal connections with an attorney out of our minds and judge the cases based solely on the law and the facts. And that is what we do.”
The recusal demand came in an Aug. 3 letter to Chief Justice John Roberts signed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and the committee’s other Democrats, excluding Georgia’s Sen. Jon Ossoff. It is part of a campaign against the court’s conservatives by Democratic politicians, left-wing advocacy groups and journalists whose goals include imposing a congressionally enacted code of ethics on the high court.
Although there already is a judicial ethics code, propounded by the U.S. Judicial Conference, it applies only to the lower federal courts, which Congress established. Proposals to create a Supreme Court code of conduct—including onerous and enforceable recusal requirements—raise fundamental issues of judicial independence and separation of powers. Chief Justice Roberts noted in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012) that the justices have a “responsibility to declare unconstitutional those laws that undermine the structure of government established by the Constitution.”
Congressional imposition of such rules would do precisely that. Justice Alito put the point strongly in the Journal interview. “Congress did not create the Supreme Court,” he said. “No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court—period.” To be sure, Article III authorizes Congress to regulate the court’s appellate jurisdiction, and Justice Alito followed his observation with this caveat: “Now, they have the power of the purse, so they have the ability to take away all of our money if we don’t do what they want. So as a practical matter, they have a lot of authority. But as a constitutional matter, they don’t.”
The Supreme Court’s independence is critical to America’s constitutional structure. As James Madison observed in his notes of the Constitutional Convention, “if it be essential to the preservation of liberty that the Legislative Executive & Judiciary powers be separate, it is essential to a maintenance of the separation, that they should be independent of each other.”
The political branches—Congress and the president—have overlapping powers that bear on the same policy issues. They also have effective tools at their disposal to fight encroachments on their authority. By contrast, the Supreme Court has the authority only to “say what the law is,” as Chief Justice John Marshall put it in Marbury v. Madison (1803). For the rule of law to prevail, the court has to carry out its duties free of any interference from the political branches. Yet its status as a countermajoritarian institution with no popular constituency makes it vulnerable to political attack.
The Constitution protects the judiciary by conferring life tenure on the justices and other Article III judges. They can be removed from office only through impeachment and conviction, and Congress is prohibited from reducing their salaries. Although lawmakers have enacted statutes establishing procedural and evidentiary rules for the lower federal courts, there is no constitutional basis supporting such authority over the Supreme Court. And while Congress first enacted recusal rules for lower courts in 1792, it didn’t extend them to the Supreme Court until 1948.
Even with respect to the lower courts, Congress doesn’t have a free hand. Recusal involves a core judicial function—the exercise of judgment in the same manner as deciding other legal issues. All recusals are determined case by case, considering the litigants and issues raised. History supports the premise that this is an inherent part of “judicial power,” belonging exclusively to the courts. In British and colonial courts alike, recusal decisions were handled entirely by judges, with no legislative input.
Congress can no more regulate this core judicial function than it can direct the president’s exercise of his core functions. As the Supreme Court confirmed in Trump v. Mazars (2020), which involved competing presidential and congressional claims, the resolution of separation-of-powers questions must take into account whether one branch of government is using its power to “aggrandize” itself at another’s expense or to gain some “institutional advantage.” The current efforts by Senate Democrats, while clothed in a concern for ethics, are plainly designed to weaken the court and put it under Congress’s thumb.
There is no evidence that the Supreme Court needs new recusal rules or has an ethics problem at all. Corruption inherently doesn’t loom large as a problem for the federal judiciary. The president and members of Congress must run for election, which requires them to raise campaign money. Both political branches provide tangible benefits to private parties through the creation or administration of spending programs and the letting of government contracts. This creates possibilities for corrupt influence.
Federal judges, by contrast, have life tenure and, as per Article III, hear only “controversies” that are brought before them. Like the president and other executive-branch officials, they are subject to impeachment for bribery or other corrupt acts. But fewer than a dozen jurists have been removed from office in more than two centuries. Recent accusations of “corruption” against conservative justices mostly involve their social activities with friends who have no pending cases before the court and likely never will. The critics seem untroubled (and rightly so) by similar behavior from liberal justices.
As Justice Alito’s statement notes, “recusal is a personal decision for each Justice.” Justices may look to the Judicial Conference’s Code of Conduct for guidance when considering whether to recuse themselves from a case. Although the federal statute requiring recusal in certain defined circumstances applies to the high court, the justices have never ruled on whether that application is constitutional.
The law, known as Section 455, incorporates standards anchored in traditional common law, so that they are arguably consistent with the original public meaning of Article III’s term “judicial power, exercised by the Supreme Court.” They mostly involve financial or family interests in a particular case. A judge might recuse himself, for instance, if a relative or a company in which he owns stock is a party to a case. Justices interpret and apply the law’s provisions in a flexible enough way to preserve judicial independence.
That flexibility is illustrated by U.S. v. Will (1980), in which the justices rejected the proposition that Section 455 obligated the entire court to recuse itself from hearing an appeal of a lawsuit, brought by 13 federal district judges, challenging the validity of statutes that repealed previously enacted cost-of-living pay increases for the judiciary. The decision by Chief Justice Warren Burger invoked “the ancient Rule of Necessity”: Because every judge had a financial interest in the outcome, a ruling by disinterested judges was a logical impossibility. Although Justice Harry Blackmun recused himself, the court held 8-0 that the repeal was constitutional only when it took effect before the increase did.
Even a single justice’s recusal can be harmful. Justice Alito’s statement related to Moore v. U.S. cited his “duty to sit,” a principle Justice William Rehnquist elucidated in a memorandum rejecting a motion to recuse himself from Laird v. Tatum (1972). Rehnquist noted a consensus among federal circuit courts of appeals “that a federal judge has a duty to sit where not disqualified which is equally as strong as the duty to not sit where disqualified.” That duty, he argued, is even stronger for a justice, whose recusal “raises the possibility of an affirmance of the judgment below by an equally divided Court. The consequence attending such a result is, of course, that the principle of law presented by the case is left unsettled.”
When a judge serving on a lower court is recused, another judge is assigned to the case and the litigation goes forward. That’s impossible when a member of the high court is recused. No one can sit in for a justice. Thus, while lower federal judges generally resolve doubts by recusing themselves, the opposite presumption is appropriate for the Supreme Court.
In addition, if the duty to sit were weakened, there is a real danger that litigants would use recusal motions strategically to affect the outcomes of cases. Public-policy litigation often comes before the court through test cases, in which litigants have been selected with a view toward the current or likely position of the federal circuit courts with jurisdiction over their place of residence or operations. In contentious areas of the law, those positions may be markedly different, reflecting the balance of judges with different judicial philosophies on the circuits.
A circuit split is one of the principal reasons why the Supreme Court will agree to hear a case. In this context, two justices’ recusals could turn a losing case into a winning one. A single recusal and a tie vote would leave the split unresolved, so that different parts of the country would be governed under different interpretations of federal law. The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, which Mr. Durbin’s committee advanced along party lines in July, would subject the justices’ recusal decisions to review by either their colleagues or a panel of lower-court judges, creating temptations within the judiciary itself to game the system.
Liberals should be as concerned as conservatives with maintaining the court’s integrity and independence, and at least on the bench they appear to be. All nine justices have signed a “Statement on Ethical Principles and Practices,” which affirms, among other things, that the justices have a duty to sit and that the decision to recuse or not is up to each individually: “If the full Court or any subset of the Court were to review the recusal decisions of individual Justices, it would create an undesirable situation in which the Court could affect the outcome of a case by selecting who among its Members may participate.”
None of this is to deny that the justices should clearly define their recusal standards or that they should make public the reasoning for their decisions, as the Statement on Ethical Principles and Practices says they are free to do. There is value in assuring the public that these decisions are taken based on rational standards, honestly applied. But that is a matter for the justices, not Congress.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration.