As with many legal and political terms, recuse and resign are often confused with each other. The differences between these terms are important to understand, especially in light of recent calls for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to do both.
To recuse means to withdraw from performing legal duties because of potential bias or a conflict of interest. This can apply to judges, jurors, lawyers, and so on, but it’s specific to the prejudice those individuals may exhibit.
In March of 2017, Reuters reported that Sessions is being asked to “recuse himself from Justice Department investigations into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.” If Sessions did this, he would not be resigning from his position as Attorney General, but would simply be removing himself from this specific investigation due to potential conflict of interest or biased judgement.
Of course, in addition to these calls for Sessions to recuse himself from this particular investigation, NPR reported that there are also requests for him to resign entirely, coming from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and others.
To resign means to give up an office or position, often formally. This is a much broader term than recuse because it doesn’t specify a reason for the removal.
Here’s a quick recap:
Recuse means to withdraw from performing legal duties (e.g. Attorney General Jeff Sessions) because of potential bias.
Resign means to formally give up a position, regardless of reason.
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