We 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.