High Court Rules Against Judge In Campaign Contribution Case; Justices Won’t Hear Appeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

June 8, 2009
The Supreme Court has ruled that an elected West Virginia judge should have disqualified himself from hearing a case involving a campaign contributor. In Caperton v. A.T. Massey, the Court ruled 5-4 that, "Under our precedents there are objective standards that require recusal when ‘the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable. Applying those precedents, we find that, in all the circumstances of this case, due process requires recusal."

In the case, the coal company A.T. Massey was fighting a West Virginia verdict that found the company liable for fraudulent actions involving contracts and awarded the plaintiffs in the case $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Before Massey's challenges to the verdict reached the West Virginia Supreme Court, its chief executive, Don Blankenship, donated to Brent Benjamin's campaign for a seat on the state's high court.

Today's majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, noted Blankenship's extensive efforts on behalf of Benjamin. "In addition to contributing the $1,000 statutory maximum to Benjamin's campaign committee, Blankenship donated almost $2.5 million to ‘And For The Sake Of The Kids,' a political organization formed" to help elect Benjamin. Blankenship, the high court noted, spent more than $500,000 on "independent expenditures - for direct mailings and letters and soliciting donations as well as television and newspaper advertisements" in support of Benjamin.

Benjamin was successful and was a West Virginia Supreme Court justice when Massey's appeal of the jury verdict reached the court. Justice Benjamin, however, refused to disqualify himself from presiding in the case and in fall 2007 voted to reverse the $50 million verdict against the coal company. Benjamin subsequently voted to uphold the reversal, again refusing to recuse himself from the case.

Writing for the majority in Caperton, Kennedy concluded "that there is serious risk of actual bias - based on objective and reasonable perceptions - when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had 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. 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. Applying this principle, we conclude that Blankenship's campaign efforts had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing Justice Benjamin on the case."

Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissent joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito. Roberts accused the majority of fashioning a new rule to guide elected judges on recusal that "provides no guidance to judges and litigants about when recusal will be constitutionally required. This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however, groundless those charges may be."

Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at Loyola Law School, analyzes Caperton in a blog post for ACSblog and the Election Law Blog.

The Supreme Court also ruled in U.S. v. Denedo that a military court can re-examine the guilty plea of officer who says his lawyer provided him misleading counsel. In Boyle v. U.S., the high court upheld a racketeering conviction of an associate of the Gambino crime family.

The justices denied cert petitions in a number of cases today. The Court announced it would not hear an appeal of a case involving the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The case was brought by former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was dismissed under the policy. The Obama administration objected to the appeal, urging the high court to decline becoming involved in the case. Before the high court, the administration argued that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled correctly in upholding "don't ask, don't tell."

The high court also refused to review a federal appeals court decision in favor of a ski resort's effort to expand on a mountain that several Indian tribes consider sacred ground.