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SCOTUS recusal ruling cited in judicial-canon case

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A federal judge in Fort Wayne is deciding whether the state's judicial conduct code should be able to restrict judicial candidates from answering surveys about views on issues they might someday hear in court.

Now, a recent ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States is being used in that federal case to delve further into what states should be allowed to do in order to balance free speech with possible perceptions of bias on the bench.

The judicial-speech case is Torrey Bauer, et al. v. Randall T. Shepard, et al., No. 3:08-CV-196, which stems from a survey the non-profit Indiana Right to Life Committee sent to judicial candidates asking them pre-election to state their views about policies and court decisions related to abortion, euthanasia, and other issues. Most declined to reply to the survey, citing an advisory opinion from the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission that warned judicial candidates against making "broad statements on disputed social and legal issues."

But deciding the rule goes too far and infringes on candidates' First and 14th amendments, the committee sued in April 2008 on behalf of Torrey Bauer, an attorney who was a candidate for Kosciusko Superior Court, and Marion Superior Judge David Certo, who at the time was a judicial candidate running for the first time after being appointed by the governor in 2007 to fill a vacancy.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard is named as the lead defendant because he chairs the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Both sides filed newly amended complaints and responses earlier this year as a result of the state adopting a revised judicial code in January. Both sides have filed motions for summary judgment, and the case remains open pending a summary judgment decision from U.S. District Judge Theresa L Springmann in Fort Wayne.

But in the past week, attorneys have filed briefs citing the June 8 decision of Hugh M. Caperton, et al. v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., No. 08-22, pointing to it as possible authority for the court to consider in its ongoing case. In that landmark 5-4 ruling, the SCOTUS held that elected judges must recuse themselves in cases involving interested parties or litigants who've made large campaign contributions that might create an appearance of bias, because those donations could be perceived to deny litigants of their due process rights.

Counsel for the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission filed a five-page notice of supplemental authority June 18, saying the Caperton decision supports its canons designed to ensure due process through judicial open-mindedness.

On Tuesday, Terre Haute attorney Jim Bopp filed a response on behalf of his clients, saying the case doesn't apply. That SCOTUS ruling applied only to "an exceptional case," and not others such as this case, Bopp wrote. He also noted that a state can adopt as rigorous a recusal standard as it likes, so as long as it doesn't run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

"Thus, a State could not require judges to recuse themselves in all cases because they belong to a particular political party, nor can they require recusal simply because a judge has announced her views on a disputed legal or political issue," the plaintiffs' response says.

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