Supremes Rule: Justice Can’t Be Bought

Must a judge recuse himself from a case in which there is an appearance of bias? Well, yes.

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More and more we’re getting the sense that we have a chief justice with a very limited view of the Constitution’s reach. Some might laud this and call it judicial restraint. But it increasingly comes perilously close to narrow-mindedness. It makes little sense to come before Congress in his second year as chief justice and argue, as Justice Roberts did in 2007, that Congress’ failure to provide a “substantial increase” to the salaries of federal judges had “reached the level of a constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the ... judiciary,” and yet suggest in Caperton that the Constitution is not at all implicated by a judge hearing a case involving a party from which he’s received $3 million in campaign contributions.

Perhaps this is what President Obama was alluding to when he announced that he would appoint a Supreme Court justice with “the common touch.” It takes a common touch, I guess, to understand, that the very legitimacy of the court system is at stake when the public perceives that justice may be available to the highest bidder. The right to an impartial tribunal under the due process clause is a central pillar of an open and fair justice system. Without it, no one can be seriously asked to resolve their disputes in courts rather than on the streets with their fists.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law and a civil rights lawyer.

is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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