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Roberts: Each justice decides on recusal

Statement anticipates challenge to health care law

WASHINGTON – Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. assured the public that members of the Supreme Court are not exempt from ethics rules for federal judges, including the requirement to step aside from a case if there are reasonable doubts about their impartiality.

But each justice gets to decide on his or her fitness to rule on a case, he said Saturday, and their decisions are not subject to further review.

“This is a consequence of the Constitution’s command that there be only ‘one Supreme Court.’ The justices serve on the nation’s court of last resort,” Roberts said.

Without citing specifics, the chief justice addressed a controversy that has swirled around the Supreme Court in the run-up to the challenge to President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” Roberts wrote in his year-end report on the federal judiciary.

Some House Democrats and liberal activists have insisted that Justice Clarence Thomas should step aside, or recuse himself, from the case because his wife, Virginia, led a tea party group calling for the “repeal of Obamacare.”

At the same time, some Republicans and conservative activists have insisted that Justice Elena Kagan should step aside because she was Obama’s solicitor general when the health care bill was signed into law in March 2010.

A few weeks later, the president nominated her to the high court. Kagan told senators in her confirmation hearing that she would withdraw from any case in which she had done legal work before joining the court. Kagan stepped aside from more than 20 cases in her first year.

But Kagan and Thomas have given no hint whether they will withdraw from the health care case.

The chief justice gently batted aside suggestions for change. He said the justices as a group had not and should not review a decision by one of their colleagues on whether to drop out of a case.