Supreme Court Rules Against West Virginia Justice in Landmark Ethics Case

225px-Anthony_Kennedy_Official225px-official_roberts_cjWe have been following the West Virginia case involving A.T. Massey Coal Co., involving a fundamental question of judicial ethics. A divided court voted 5-4 in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al. (08-22) that West Virginia Justice Brent D. Benjmain violated the constitution by sitting on a case involving the major donor in his campaign, A.T. Massey’s chief executive, Don Blankenship.

This is an enormously important decision in establishing constitutional protections for litigants from judicial bias and abuse. Justice Anthony Kennedy again played his swing vote role.

In his majority opinion, Kennedy (as expected) emphasized the facts of the case as an example of a rare and flagrant violation that reaches the level of a constitutional deprivation: “The facts now before us are extreme by any measure. The parties point to no other instance involving judicial campaign contributions that presents a potential for bias comparable to the circumstances in this case.”
Kennedy wrote that Blankenship’s massive contributions to unseat another justice by assisting Benjamin was cause enough for the latter’s recusal from the case: “Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when…a man chooses the judge in his own cause. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.” Kennedy makes clear that this is a case-by-case analysis balancing various factors:

The temporal relationship between the campaign contributions, the justice’s election, and the pendency of the case is also critical. It was reasonably foreseeable, when the campaign contributions were made, that the pending case would be before the newly elected justice. The $50 million adverse jury verdict had been entered before the election, and the Supreme Court of Appeals was the next step once the state trial court dealt with post-trial motions. So it became at once apparent that, absent recusal, Justice Benjamin would review a judgment that cost his biggest donor’s company $50 million. Although there is no allegation of a quid pro quo agreement, the fact remains that Blankenship’s extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome. Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when—without the consent of the other parties—a man chooses the judge in his own cause. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was here a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.

Chief John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Sam Alito voted to reject the claim. Roberts said that the ruling will only encourage more litigants to bring allegations of judicial bias.

For a copy of the opinion, click here.

36 thoughts on “Supreme Court Rules Against West Virginia Justice in Landmark Ethics Case

  1. I disagree with RAM (seven postings above this one). The wingnuts on the court didn’t HAVE to rule the way they did given Scalia’s questionable relationship with Cheney during litigation before the court involving the Vice President. Do you think that Scalia is going to worry about being called inconsistent? Also, it is Cheney who owes Scalia (for making him VP), not vice versa. Furthermore, Scalia doesn’t need to be bought; he’s going to side with Cheney anyway, always. For a better explanation of the dissenters’ position, see Rick Pildes posting at http://www.balkin.blogspot.com/. (You have to scroll down a bit for it.)

  2. Considering the SCOTUS caseload has been cut about in half by the conservatives since they took over the court, starting with Rehnquist, you would think Roberts would be ashamed of including in his opinion a whine about the possibility that this ruling might result in his having more work to do. I know he doesn’t think he’s being paid enough, but really….

  3. Mike Appleton observed:
    “The dissent by Justice Roberts is merely a variation on the classic “floodgates” justification for a court’s refusal to right a wrong: if we order recusal, we will have to deal with these issues again. Better to allow an injustice to stand than to potentially increase the court’s workload in the future.”

    I have seen this meta-equitable justification for ruling one way or another in my opponent’s legal briefs and in judicial decisions, and it irks my sensiblities so bad, I am struck dumbfounded in trying to describe how bad it is on so many levels.

    The first most irksome aspect of it is, the supposedly impartial judge, is ruling in a case based upon how tough his workload will be made by ruling a certain way. As if that has ANY bearing on the substance of the case, or the merits of the arguments/law/facts.
    WTF CARES what the adminstrative ramifications will be!?! That is the wrapper of the judicial system, and should have no influence on consideration of the merits of a party’s legal case.

    I surprised that a statement like this is ever argued or issued with a straight face. It demonstrates a selfish tunnelvision and small mindedness of the judge or justice.

  4. Obama Stumped When Asked About North Korea

    America is SOOOO screwed with this clown Obama.

  5. akeva is why this blawg requires an after-post moderator.

    ‘Its’ posts are irrelevant to the topic, they add nothing but bulk, which adds to the sluggishness of this site. Consider how many ‘good’ posts could occupy the space that the junk occupies.

  6. The wingnuts on the court pretty much HAD to rule the way they did given Scalia’s questionable relationship with Cheney during litigation before the court involving the Vice President. You will recall Scalia contended that just because he socialized with Cheney and went on an expensive ‘hunting’ expedition with him that didn’t mean he couldn’t remain impartial and so refused to recuse himself.

    “I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned,” Scalia said back in 2004. “If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court Justice can be bought so cheap, the Nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined.”

    And it undoubtedly was, and is, at least as far as the Supreme Court and the Republican Party are concerned. Also, please notice that Scalia didn’t deny he had been bought, only that it would be ‘unreasonable’ to think he had been.

  7. akeva, you sure love those polls. Too bad they’re not votes. But you can continue to quote poll results and Fox news viewer stats. Just be quiet about it so the Democrats can continue to run the country while you sit in the corner and work on your little calculations.

  8. WORTH SAYING AGAIN:

    GOP now leads Dems by six points on economy in Rasmussen

    This is the first time in over two years of polling that the GOP has held the advantage on this issue.

    Republicans also now hold a six-point lead on the issue of government ethics and corruption, the second most important issue to all voters and the top issue among unaffiliated voters. That shows a large shift from May, when Democrats held an 11-point lead on the issue…

    For the eighth straight month, Republicans lead on national security. The GOP now holds a 51% to 36% lead on the issue, up from a seven-point lead in May. They also lead on the war in Iraq 45% to 37%, after leading by just two points in May and trailing the Democrats in April…

    Democrats continue to barely hold the lead on the issues of health care, Social Security and education.

    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/trust_on_issues/trust_on_issues

  9. “Roberts said that the ruling will only encourage more litigants to bring allegations of judicial bias.”

    And we certainly can’t have American citizens demanding an unbiased judiciary, heh, Mr. Chief Justice?

    If the CHIEF Justice of the US SUPREME Court isn’t concerned about judicial bias, or more specifically concerned that we citizens might actually want such a radical thing, what does that tell us about HIS/THEIR fears about folks questioning HIS (and Scalia’s, Thomas’ and Alito’s) biases?

  10. GOP now leads Dems by six points on economy in Rasmussen

    This is the first time in over two years of polling that the GOP has held the advantage on this issue.

    Republicans also now hold a six-point lead on the issue of government ethics and corruption, the second most important issue to all voters and the top issue among unaffiliated voters. That shows a large shift from May, when Democrats held an 11-point lead on the issue…

    For the eighth straight month, Republicans lead on national security. The GOP now holds a 51% to 36% lead on the issue, up from a seven-point lead in May. They also lead on the war in Iraq 45% to 37%, after leading by just two points in May and trailing the Democrats in April…

    Democrats continue to barely hold the lead on the issues of health care, Social Security and education.

    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/trust_on_issues/trust_on_issues

  11. Quick Take: Evan Thomas vs. Evan Thomas

    Newsweek editor Evan Thomas has created a precious contrast in the media’s approach to presidents Bush and Obama:

    “Our job is to bash the president, that’s what we do.” — Evan Thomas responding to a question on whether the media’s unfair to Bush on the TV talk show Inside Washington, February 2, 2007.

    “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above – above the world, he’s sort of God.” – Evan Thomas on Hardball, June 5, 2009.

    Quick Take: Evan Thomas vs. Evan Thomas

    Newsweek editor Evan Thomas has created a precious contrast in the media’s approach to presidents Bush and Obama:

    “Our job is to bash the president, that’s what we do.” — Evan Thomas responding to a question on whether the media’s unfair to Bush on the TV talk show Inside Washington, February 2, 2007.

    “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above – above the world, he’s sort of God.” – Evan Thomas on Hardball, June 5, 2009.

    Quick Take: Evan Thomas vs. Evan Thomas

    Newsweek editor Evan Thomas has created a precious contrast in the media’s approach to presidents Bush and Obama:

    “Our job is to bash the president, that’s what we do.” — Evan Thomas responding to a question on whether the media’s unfair to Bush on the TV talk show Inside Washington, February 2, 2007.

    “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above – above the world, he’s sort of God.” – Evan Thomas on Hardball, June 5, 2009.

  12. Akeva, why don’t you do what other people do who lack the capacity for original thought? Instead of cutting and pasting the words of others on this site, print them out and paste them in the scrapbook of your life. That way, those of us who actually have ideas of our own can continue to visit this site without having to page through incoherent rubbish. Thank you for your anticipated courtesy.

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