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SCOTUS: Elected judges must step aside

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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.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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