Policy Brief: Judicial Recusal

Last month, Chicago Appleseed shared a policy brief on judicial recusal standards with the Illinois Supreme Court. The policy brief, written by staff attorney Elizabeth Monkus with assistance from staff intern Sarah Swearer, focuses on the features of meaningful recusal standards and procedures.  Specifically, it discusses transparent and reasoned decision-making with independent adjudication, as well as meaningful review and enhanced disclosure for campaign contributions.

A copy is available for download here: http://www.chicagoappleseed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Chicago-Appleseed-Policy-Brief-Recusal.pdf

Chicago Appleseed is committed to improving the quality of our judiciary, including strengthening processes within the judiciary for regulating itself. The policy brief is based upon practices in other jurisdictions, recommendations from policy centers, and an examination of the procedures currently in place in Illinois. We believe the judiciary has viable options for immediate change that will improve recusal procedures in Illinois and hope that the policy brief will serve as a guide.

Public perception of bias in the judiciary is on the rise as judicial election campaigns attract larger donations and the attention of nonlocal groups and PACs. Regardless of how campaign donations actually influence judicial decision-making, the public looks askance at judicial decisions where one of the affected parties was a substantial donor to the judge’s election or re-election campaign. Clear recusal rules, as well as a transparent and uniform process for enforcing the recusal standards, restores public confidence in the judiciary by acknowledging or limiting the judicial interactions of contributors and judges.

Strengthening campaign contribution and disclosure rules, which Illinois has recently done, are a first step toward reassuring the public that the judiciary remains independent in the current climate of campaign financing. In 2007, a report of the Brennan Center found Illinois’ campaign finance laws to be “the worst in the Midwest.”   In 2009, Governor Pat Quinn signed SB 1466,  which enacted sweeping campaign finance reform in Illinois,  with most provisions becoming effective after the 2010 elections. The reforms—which include contribution limits, broader disclosure rules, and wider definitions of political committees— have survived preliminary challenges in the federal courts.

Next steps include integrating the disclosure rules into the judicial recusal process by enhancing disclosure of judicial campaign contributions, and by creating standards and procedures to determine when recusal is necessary based upon campaign donations. Additionally, recusal decisions should be made on the record, to facilitate review and promote transparency in the decision-making process.  Our policy brief offers greater detail on how improved recusal procedures will enhance public confidence in the judiciary and reflects on how the best available options fit within our existing systems.

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