U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court: CEO's Big Judicial Contributions Require Judge's Recusal

  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution required the recusal of a West Virginia Supreme Court justice who was elected with the help of more than $3 million in contributions from a coal mining executive.

The 5-4 ruling said Justice Brent Benjamin should not have participated in a case involving the CEO’s company, Massey Coal Co., SCOTUSblog reports. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that due process required recusal.

Benjamin had twice voted with a 3-2 majority to overturn a $50 million verdict against Massey Energy, despite the large judicial campaign contributions made by CEO Don Blankenship.

“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,” Kennedy wrote. He said the peculiar circumstances of the case, “extreme by any measure,” serve to refute suggestions that courts will be flooded with recusal motions as a result of the decision.

“We conclude that there is a serious risk of actual bias—based on objective and reasonable perceptions—when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent,” he wrote.

“The inquiry centers on the contribution’s relative size in comparison to the total amount of money contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election, and the apparent effect such contribution had on the outcome of the election.”

ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. issued a statement applauding the ruling, but cautioning that “the standards laid out by the court must not be viewed as the final word on this issue.” He said the ABA will refine the standards by developing recommended guidelines for recusal.

“The ABA’s amicus brief to the court identified factors that could be considered to determine when judges ought to withdraw from ruling on a case,” Wells said. “We agree with the court that the size and importance of a contribution, the timing of the gift, and the relationship between the donor and a pending case are all significant. The ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, working through its Judicial Disqualification Project, will continue to refine those and other factors into a series of guidelines for courts to assess whether contributions to judges’ campaigns implicate the due process rights of parties appearing before them.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a dissent that he shares concerns about maintaining an impartial judiciary, the Associated Press reports. “But I fear that the court’s decision will undermine rather than promote these values,” Roberts said.

The chief justice said the case “will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be. The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case.”

Roberts listed 40 questions—some of them multipart questions—that will be raised by the majority opinion. No. 1: “How do we determine whether a given expenditure is ‘disproportionate’? Disproportionate to what?”

Roberts wrote: “Today’s opinion requires state and federal judges simultaneously to act as political scientists (why did candidate X win the election?), economists (was the financial support disproportionate?),and psychologists (is there likely to be a debt of gratitude?).”

Roberts was joined in dissent by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The case is Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

Prior coverage:

ABA Journal: “Caperton’s Coal”

ABAJournal.com: “Top Court Hears Judicial Influence Case, Leans Toward Stricter Recusal Standard”

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court Litigator to Argue for Non-PC Side in Judge Influence Case”

ABAJournal.com: “Top State Jurists Weigh In on W. Va. Recusal Issue”

ABAJournal.com: “High Court to Decide if Big Judicial Contributions Trigger Recusal”

ABAJournal.com: “ABA Among Five Groups Urging High Court to Hear Judicial Recusal Case”

Updated at 1:10 p.m. CT to includes Wells’ statement.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.