“Recuse” vs. “Resign”: What’s The Difference?

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.

What does recuse mean?

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. Although the word once had a variety of uses (now obsolete), it is mostly used within the context of law now.

For example, in March of 2017, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. When he did so, he was not resigning from his position as Attorney General, but simply removing himself from this specific investigation due to potential conflict of interest or biased judgment.

Recused is frequently used to discuss how judges handle conflicts of interest: The judge has a personal connection to the defendant and will need to recuse herself from the case. Or, I suggested to the judge he should recuse himself from this high-profile case due to his public views on health care reform.

Recuse was first recorded in 1350–1400 and is ultimately from the Latin term recūsāre meaning “to demur, object.”

What does resign mean?

Resign most commonly means “to give up one’s job or position.”

When used this way, resign can be used without an object, as in He resigned yesterday, or with one, as in She is expected to resign her position. In its general sense, resign means to yield or submit, as in When he knew he couldn’t possibly win the match, he decided to resign. 

Resign has been used to mean “quit” or “yield” since at least the 1300s. It is ultimately derived from the Latin verb resignāre, meaning “give up” or “unseal, invalidate, destroy.”

When used in the sense of leaving a position, resign is synonymous with quit, but the two words can imply different things.

To say that someone quit their job usually (though not always) implies that they left because they didn’t like something about it. When someone resigns, it can be for positive, negative, or neutral reasons. For example, a politician might resign due to a scandal, or an employee might resign to protest a policy they consider unethical. A person might also resign because they’re moving or they want to change their career. Sometimes, people are given the option to resign instead of being fired. This especially happens in governmental or political appointments.

Resign can also mean “to give oneself up to a feeling or circumstance,” as in I just have to resign myself to the fact that I’ll never be a professional bowler.

A quick recap

  • Recuse means “to withdraw from performing legal duties because of potential bias.”
  • Resign means “to formally give up a position, regardless of reason.”

Resign and recuse are two words that both refer to tricky situations that come up, often in the workplace. They can be handled with grace and dignity—so here’s hoping you’re not the one who caused trouble if you find you must recuse yourself or resign!


Sometimes you really do need to throw in the towel … but you need a more professional and accurate way of saying so. Here are some exceptional alternatives to saying, “I quit!”

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