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Congress opens inquiry into Obama Supreme Court nominee recusal in teen sex case

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sent a letter Wednesday to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts demanding more information about how the case involving Judge Richard Roberts was handled. (Cropped photos courtesy Don LaVange / CC BY-SA 2.0, United States Department of Justice / MGN )

Congress has opened a formal inquiry into why President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, recused himself from a judicial misconduct case involving allegations one of the judges in his circuit had sex with a 16-year-old girl decades ago.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sent a letter Wednesday to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts demanding more information about how the case involving Judge Richard Roberts was handled.

Roberts abruptly stepped down as a chief judge in the U.S. District Court in Washington earlier this month and was granted disability status right around the time a woman emerged and filed a lawsuit alleging she was sexually assaulted by Judge Roberts decades ago in Utah when she was 16.

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In his current role as chief judge of the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington DC, Garland plays a supervisory role over all the judges in the district court beneath him. But Garland recused himself from the inquiry.

Chaffetz expressed skepticism around the timing of the disability determination for Roberts and the recusal by Garland, which occurred days before he Garland was nominated by the president to the Supreme Court.

"The Committee is interested in better understanding the process by which federal judicial misconduct complaints and disability determinations are handled by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia," the congressman wrote in a letter obtained by Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Chaffetz wrote that the allegations that surfaced against Roberts were "disturbing" and the process that allowed the judge to resign abruptly and keep his retirement appeared to involve "a remarkably coincidental permanent disability." The Utah congressman also said the handling of the Roberts' case differed from two other recent judicial misconduct cases.

Utah officials have acknowledged that an outside review found "significant evidence" that Roberts had sexual relations with a woman, then 16, back in 1981 when Roberts was a federal prosecutor in Utah and the woman was a witness. The woman claims in a lawsuit filed this month that Roberts repeatedly sexually assaulted her, a claim the retired judge denied through his lawyer.

Chaffetz signaled in his letter that his committee intends to focus specifically on Garland's role as a chief judge of the DC Appeals Court and how the court system handled his own recusal.

"We are interested in further understanding the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for handling misconduct complaints and disability determinations," the congressman wrote.

Judges normally recuse themselves only when they have ethical or financial reasons that would prevent them from being unbiased during proceedings. Garland has been silent as to why he stepped aside in the Roberts case, but a court spokeswoman has said he did not learn of the sexual assault allegations until about a week before he was nominated.

While Garland remain silent, a spokeswoman for the Appeals Court issued a statement saying the judge stepped aside from reviewing the Roberts allegations because he had a "longstanding professional relationship with Judge Roberts."

Garland would otherwise likely have served as a panel known as the Judicial Council of the DC Circuit that could have reprimanded or punished Roberts. Instead, the judge was allowed to retire without penalty and with a disability determination.

Raphael Williams is a contributor to Sinclair Broadcast Group.

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