Legal Ethics

Top Court Hears Judicial Influence Case, Leans Toward Stricter Recusal Standard

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At least the public knew who was spending the money in a high-profile judicial influence case that packed the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments today.

But in many other situations, the financial backing that helps judges win elections isn’t the subject of widespread news reports, points out the Grand Rapids Press in its Talking Politics blog. Hence, the upcoming decision in Hugh M. Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company, Inc. should be of interest throughout the country, the newspaper says.

At issue is whether a newly elected justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Brent Benjamin, should have refused to hear a mining company dispute after a mining company executive spent $3 million in an election campaign to depose the incumbent justice who previously held Benjamin’s seat. Instead of recusing himself as requested, Benjamin at least arguably cast the deciding vote in the 3-2 case—in favor of the mining company whose executive had helped him win the judicial election.

During oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia wondered whether the same recusal argument being applied to elected judges might apply to appointed judges, such as himself, since he owed a debt of gratitude to President Ronald Reagan for putting him on the bench, reports the Blog of Legal Times.

But former Solicitor General Theodore Olsen of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher replied that appointed federal judges, due to their life tenure, aren’t seen as beholden to those who put them on the bench in the same manner that an elected judge is to a large donor.

Other justices seemed to feel there was little question that Benjamin should have recused himself, reports USA Today, in an article suggesting that stricter recusal standards may now be en route from the nation’s top court.

Justice John Paul Stevens described the “extreme” Benjamin situation as “obviously improper,” and Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts a swing vote on the court, also appeared open to adopting a stricter recusal standard, the newspaper writes. Speaking generally of skyrocketing campaign contributions for judicial elections, Justice David Souter said, at one point, “the system … is not working well.”

Related coverage:

Brennan Center for Justice: “Caperton v. Massey”

Christian Science Monitor: “Should judges step aside when campaign cash is involved?”

ABA Journal: “Caperton’s Coal”

ABA Journal: “Promoting Fair and Impartial Courts” “Supreme Court Litigator to Argue for Non-PC Side in Judge Influence Case”

Newsweek: “When Judges Behave Badly”

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