There are sometimes instances in a court proceeding where the judge will determine that he or she should not oversee the trial.  When that happens, the judge will be removed from the case, and a new judge appointed to oversee the proceedings.  This is known as judicial recusal. Judicial recusal is codified in both federal and state statute. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that judicial recusal is essential to an impartial system and is thus rooted in the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.

Why Should a Judge Be Recused?

The most common reason for recusal involve situations where the judge’s impartiality could be questioned.  This can arise when the judge has a personal bias concerning the topic of the case, has served as a lawyer or witness for one of the parties, or where the judge has a financial interest in the result of the case.

Judges at all levels have been known to recuse themselves from cases.  Even Supreme Court justices will occasionally decline to hear certain cases, generally because they have a financial interest in the result. 

Recusal is an important tool for the courts.  It gives judges the opportunity to avoid a possible ethical dilemma.  This in turn allows the judicial system to maintain its integrity, and provides interested parties the security that the proceedings are fair and evenhanded.

What If the Judge is Biased but Refuses to Recuse Themselves?

If a party believes that a judge has a bias and that the judge should recuse him or herself, the party may make a motion for substitution of the judge. Since judicial recusal is based on the discretion of each individual judge, the motion is often at the mercy of the judge being challenged. If a judge denies a motion to recuse, the case can be appealed to a higher court for review. However, even if the motion is successful and the biased judge is replaced, there is no guarantee that the next judge will be more impartial.