Supreme Court backs elected judges recusals in big donors’ cases

June 9, 2009

(ChattahBox) — The Supreme Court set a new but blurry standard for elected judges to remove themselves from cases involving big-money donors who helped them win their jobs.  The 5-4 decision came in the case of a state supreme court justice Brent Benjamin who benefited from $3 million in campaign contributions from a coal executive and should have stayed out of a lawsuit involving the executive’s company. Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal company executive spent his own money in support of ousting one West Virginia Supreme Court justice and helping elect his replacement, Benjamin. At the time, Blankenship and his Massey Coal Co. were appealing a $50 million jury verdict for having driven a small competitor into bankruptcy. After the election, Benjamin who refused to recuse himself, while two other justices did, then cast deciding votes in two 3-2 decisions, in November 2007 and April 2008, to overturn the verdict against Massey and in favor of Hugh Caperton and his company Harman Mining. With interest, the verdict is now worth more than $82 million. The case drew wide criticism as a seemingly blatant example of how money could buy justice, and even inspired a John Grisham novel.
In this ruling U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions and sent the case back to the West Virginia Supreme Court “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.” The justices said the case should be reheard after Benjamin recuses himself.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the court’s four liberals, wrote that the “extreme facts” of the case, “the probability of actual bias.” The majority said the refusal by Justice Brent Benjamin of West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals to recuse himself from the case violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “due process of law.”
Kennedy referred to the Benjamin-Caperton-Massey saga as an “extreme case” and wrote, “His (Blankenship’s) contributions eclipsed the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and exceeded by 300 percent the amount spent by Benjamin’s campaign committee.”

Kennedy was joined by justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion.

The four conservatives on the Supreme Court dissented and warned that the decision could clog the court system with challenges by litigants claiming an appearance of bias by judges.

Writing for the dissenters, Chief Justice John Roberts said “the cure is worse than the disease.” In the past, he wrote, the court had found the Constitution requires recusal only when a judge or agency had a financial interest in a case, or when a judge has a personal conflict with a defendant.

Roberts raised 40 questions, which are unanswered by the majority’s ruling and left for the lower courts to wrestle with, such as “How much money is too much money?” or, “What if the case involves a social or ideological issue rather than a financial one?”


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