Judicial legitimacy rests on the perception of judicial impartiality. As a partisan gulf widens among the American public, however, there is a growing skepticism of the judiciary’s neutrality on politically sensitive topics. Hardening partisan identities mean that there is less middle ground on political issues and less cooperation among those with differing political views. As a result, the public increasingly scrutinizes judges and judicial candidates for signs of political agreement, distrusting those perceived to support the opposing political party.
Judges themselves are not immune to these political forces. In spite of a strong judicial identity that demands impartiality and judicial conduct rules that require judges to avoid even the appearance of bias, judges have the same unconscious biases and preconceptions as anyone else. Moreover, judges must generally have strong political affiliations to reach the bench at all, regardless of whether they are elected or appointed. Drawing the line between mere political affiliation and an inappropriate appearance of partisan bias can therefore be difficult.
This Article analyzes the mechanisms available to safeguard judicial impartiality. Although recusal motions are the most common weapon against partisan bias, this Article argues that recusal motions cannot effectively guard against the appearance of bias arising from a judge’s political views. When recusal rules rely on an undefined “appearance” standard, they are susceptible to an interpretive bias that undermines their purpose. Nonetheless, the Article concludes that the appearance of partisan bias in the judicial branch is not so different from other types of unconscious bias. As a result, ordinary procedural tools—including the right to a jury trial and our system of appellate review—may provide a stronger safeguard against judicial bias than recusal motions.