U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said he has “complete confidence” in the ability of his Supreme Court colleagues to decide whether to remove themselves from cases when conflicts arise.
Justices Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas have been urged to recuse themselves from consideration of the health-care overhaul signed into law by President Barack Obama. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments about the law’s constitutionality in March.
“I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” Roberts said in a 16-page year-end report released today, without naming Kagan or Thomas or citing the health-care debate specifically. “They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process.”
Republican lawmakers and interest groups have said Kagan has a possible conflict of interest if she advised the Obama administration about the health-care legislation while she was solicitor general, the position she held when nominated to the court in 2010. Democrats have said Thomas should recuse himself because his wife, Virginia, has worked for groups that oppose the law. Neither justice has indicated any intent to step aside in the case.
Roberts said there is an important difference between lower federal courts, where judges “can freely substitute for one another” when a recusal occurs, and the Supreme Court, which “consists of nine members who always sit together, and if a justice withdraws from a case, the court must sit without its full membership.”
Convenience Not Enough
“A justice accordingly cannot withdraw from a case as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy,” Roberts said.
Roberts, 56, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2005 by President George W. Bush, said he was grateful for the “selfless commitment to public service in the face of demanding dockets and tight budgets” among federal judges and court staff. He also said he was grateful to Congress for its “careful consideration of the judiciary’s financial needs.”
He said federal bankruptcy filings declined 8 percent in 2011 from a year earlier, to just below 1.5 million petitions, the first decrease since 2007. Bankruptcy filings increased 14 percent in 2010.
There were 78,440 criminal cases filed in federal courts in 2011, about the same as 2010, and the number of criminal defendants increased 3 percent to 102,931, a record high.
Criminal immigration cases decreased 3 percent, the first drop since 2006.