ILNews

SCOTUS: Elected judges must step aside

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Elected judges must recuse themselves in cases where large campaign contributions from interested parties create an appearance of bias, the nation's highest court ruled today.

In a landmark decision that has been highly anticipated from the bench and bar, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its split decision today in Hugh M. Caperton, et al. v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., No. 08-22, which asked justices to reverse a $50 million verdict in favor of a coal-mining executive who'd contributed millions to an elected West Virginia Supreme Court justice's 2004 campaign.

With a 5-4 vote, the majority said that a judge who refused to recuse himself in a lawsuit filed against the company of the most generous supporter of his election deprived the other side of the constitutional right to a fair trial.

Caperton and other plaintiffs had accused major coal-mining company Massey Energy of breaking a coal-supply contract and driving them out of business. The trial court awarded Caperton $50 million, but then the state's Supreme Court twice reversed that jury award by 3-2 votes, which sparked the judicial ethics issue.

The company's chief executive, Don Blankenship, spent more than $3 million to help elect Justice Brent D. Benjamin to the state's Supreme Court of Appeals and defeat his incumbent opponent. That was more than 60 percent of the total spent on the judicial campaign, paid while Blankenship's company was preparing to appeal the verdict. On appeal, Justice Benjamin was the deciding vote in two 3-2 majorities to throw out the verdict against Massey after refusing to recuse himself from the case.

Since then, he's risen to the spot of chief justice of that court.

In urging the SCOTUS not to hear the case, Massey's lawyers said the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause requires only the absence of an actual judicial conflict of interest, as when a judge has a stake in the outcome of a case. The company argued that the court had never adopted a "'looks bad' due process test" and therefore the verdict should stand because Justice Benjamin wasn't required to recuse himself.

However, that argument didn't persuade a majority of justices who found this case to be extraordinary and required the justice to step aside.

"Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal, but this is an exceptional case," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his opinion for the majority, reversing and remanding the case to the West Virginia court. "On these extreme facts the probability of actual bias rises to an unconstitutional level."

Relying on precedent that delved into how the Due Process Clause requires recusal in certain cases, justices also turned to the American Bar Association's model judicial conduct code that states, "A judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety." States are allowed to go further than the Due Process Clause in setting their own rules, and this case shows that the Constitution tests only the "outer boundaries of judicial disqualifications" and most won't reach this level, the majority determined.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens joined Justice Kennedy, while Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissent joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

"Unlike the established grounds for disqualification, a 'probability of bias' cannot be defined in any limited way," the chief justice wrote. "The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case."

This ruling is expected to have widespread influence throughout the country, including in places like Indiana that are grappling with the debate about whether judicial elections or a merit-selection and retention system are better methods in choosing who's on the bench.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Hello everyone am precious from the united state of America am here to testify in the name of this great man who has brought back happiness into my family after my lover Chris left me for 3years for another woman,i really loved Chris because he was my first love i tried everything within my power to get Chris back to my life but people i met just kept on scamming me and lying to me,Then normally on Saturdays i do go out to make my hair and get some stuff,Then i had people discussing at the saloon if they do listen to there radio well,That there is a program (how i got back my ex)And started talking much about Dr EDDY how this man has helped lots of people in bringing back there lover,So immediately i went close to those ladies i met at the saloon and i explained things to them they said i should try and contact Dr EDDY that he has been the talk of the town and people are really contacting him for help immediately we searched on the internet and read great things about Dr EDDY i now got all Dr EDDY contact instantly at the saloon i gave Dr EDDY a call and i shared my problem with him he just told me not to worry that i should just be happy,He just told me to send him some few details which i did,And then he got back to me that everything would be okay within 36hours i was so happy then Dr EDDY did his work and he did not fail me,My lover Chris came to me in tears and apologized to me for leaving me in deep pain for good 3years,So he decided to prove that he will never leave me for any reason he made me had access to his account and made me his next of kin on all his will,Now the most perfect thing is that he can't spend a minute without seeing me or calling me,Am so grateful to Dr EDDY for bringing back the happiness which i lack for years,Please contact Dr EDDY for help he is a trustworthy man in email is dreddyspiritualtemple@gmail.com or you can call him or whatsapp him with this number...+23408160830324 (1)If you want your ex back. (2) if you always have bad dreams. (3)You want to be promoted in your office. (4)You want women/men to run after you. (5)If you want a child. (6)[You want to be rich. (7)You want to tie your husband/wife to be yours forever. (8)If you need financial assistance. (9)If you want to stop your Divorce. 10)Help bringing people out of prison. (11)Marriage Spells (12)Miracle Spells (13)Beauty Spells (14)PROPHECY CHARM (15)Attraction Spells (16)Evil Eye Spells. (17)Kissing Spell (18)Remove Sickness Spells. (19)ELECTION WINNING SPELLS. (20)SUCCESS IN EXAMS SPELLS. (21) Charm to get who to love you. CONTACT:dreddyspiritualtemple@gmail.com

  2. The appellate court just said doctors can be sued for reporting child abuse. The most dangerous form of child abuse with the highest mortality rate of any form of child abuse (between 6% and 9% according to the below listed studies). Now doctors will be far less likely to report this form of dangerous child abuse in Indiana. If you want to know what this is, google the names Lacey Spears, Julie Conley (and look at what happened when uninformed judges returned that child against medical advice), Hope Ybarra, and Dixie Blanchard. Here is some really good reporting on what this allegation was: http://media.star-telegram.com/Munchausenmoms/ Here are the two research papers: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0145213487900810 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213403000309 25% of sibling are dead in that second study. 25%!!! Unbelievable ruling. Chilling. Wrong.

  3. MELISA EVA VALUE INVESTMENT Greetings to you from Melisa Eva Value Investment. We offer Business and Personal loans, it is quick and easy and hence can be availed without any hassle. We do not ask for any collateral or guarantors while approving these loans and hence these loans require minimum documentation. We offer great and competitive interest rates of 2% which do not weigh you down too much. These loans have a comfortable pay-back period. Apply today by contacting us on E-mail: melisaeva9@gmail.com WE DO NOT ASK FOR AN UPFRONT FEE. BEWARE OF SCAMMERS AND ONLINE FRAUD.

  4. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  5. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

ADVERTISEMENT