Chief justice defends court's impartiality

December 31, 2011 - 7:03 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 Barack 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."

The court's ruling of Obama's health care law, expected by late June, could have serious political ramifications in the 2012 presidential elections. Both sides know that taking away just one vote could tip the outcome on the nine-justice court.

Republican lawmakers say it's not fair that Kagan will rule on the case after serving as Obama's top Supreme Court lawyer until nominated to the high court. They say the Justice Department has not fully revealed her involvement in planning Obama's response to challenges to the law.

Meanwhile, 74 Democrats told Thomas in a letter last February that because of his wife's work "the line between your impartiality and you and your wife's financial stake in the overturn of health care reform is blurred."

While not specifically addressing Kagan or Thomas, Roberts noted guidelines issued in 1924 by the American Bar Association that stated a judge "should not be swayed by partisan demands, public clamor or considerations of personal popularity or notoriety, nor be apprehensive of unjust criticism."

Roberts also defended the Supreme Court's adherence to certain ethical guidelines, even though a congressionally enacted "Code of Conduct" applies only to lower courts. And, Roberts said, special considerations must be made when dealing with a nine-member panel that does not answer to a higher court. Whereas one lower-court judge can be substituted for another, a Supreme Court Justice "cannot withdraw from a case as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy," Roberts wrote.

Even after following strict guidelines, he added, "no compilation of ethical rules can guarantee integrity. Judges must exercise both constant vigilance and good judgment to fulfill the obligations they have all taken since the beginning of the Republic."