What Does "Recuse" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Recuse is a verb that means to leave or seek that someone leave participation in a trial or court decision based on having some sort of personal interest in a case. The term is most frequently used when judges self-recuse because their interest in a case damages their impartiality. Sometimes jurors or lawyers are recused, and in either case, excused may be a more appropriate term. Recuse is based on the Latin word recusare, which roughly translates as "refuse from a cause." Recusal is the noun form of this word.

A judge might self-recuse from a case if he or she cannot remain impartial.
A judge might self-recuse from a case if he or she cannot remain impartial.

Judges are expected to recuse themselves if they have any personal interest in a case or decision that influences their ability to judge it fairly. Different types of interest include strong personal relationships with any parties to a trial, prior involvement in an ongoing case in another capacity, partiality on the issue being tried, or financial interest in a case’s outcome. Since the judge’s job is to adjudicate a case fairly, any special interest in it that might create prejudice is undesirable, and a judge is always supposed to recognize that interest and recuse himself.

An attorney assigned to a case may be able to recuse themselves if they have a personal interest in the opposing side.
An attorney assigned to a case may be able to recuse themselves if they have a personal interest in the opposing side.

Examples of judicial recusal are frequent. Supreme Court judges recuse themselves especially when they have any financial interest in the decision being made or if they’ve previously worked on a case in a lower court. In many small towns, it’s not unusual for judges to have personal relationships with the parties to a trial, or to be related to someone involved in a case. This matter isn’t always clear-cut; judges who work for a long time in the same court tend to get to know attorneys who plead cases and may know some of them socially. Unless these ties are romantic or familial, personal knowledge of an attorney isn’t necessarily a reason for recusal, though some argue it confers a disadvantage to attorneys who aren’t connected.

Attorneys may also seek the recusal of a judge they feel is unlikely to render a fair decision. Sometimes judges aren’t aware of a conflict of interest until a trial begins or they don’t feel that there is enough of a conflict to matter. Lawyers can point out the conflict and ask for a different judge, but they usually must first offer a judge an opportunity to recuse herself. Going to a higher court to seek the recusal of a judge might cause negative political consequences, though some lawyers have successfully accomplished it.

Juries and occasionally lawyers are recused. A juror tells a judge why she cannot fairly decide a case, and the reasons are similar to those a judge uses. Lawyers may also have personal interest in cases that extend beyond or are in conflict with properly serving their clients. This scenario may especially arise when a court assigns cases to lawyers. Any attorney with a personal interest in the opposing side, such as financial investment or relatedness should recuse himself or help a client find an attorney who can represent the client without conflict.

Someone with inside information about a conflict may have to recuse themselves.
Someone with inside information about a conflict may have to recuse themselves.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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