June 08, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co.

On June 8, the Supreme Court decided Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., No. 08-22.

A jury trial in West Virginia resulted in a $50 million verdict against A.T. Massey Coal Co. (Massey). After the verdict but before the appeal, West Virginia held judicial elections, including a seat on the state's Supreme Court. Blankenship, the chairman of Massey, spent almost $3 million in contributions and independent expenditures to support the candidacy of Benjamin, who was opposing an incumbent judge of the court. Blankenship's various expenditures were more than the total spent by all other supporters of Benjamin and more than three times the amount spent by the Benjamin campaign itself. Benjamin won the election by fewer than 50,000 votes. Once he became a member of the court, Benjamin denied several motions to recuse himself from the appeal of the verdict against Massey, and the court ultimately reversed the verdict by a 3–2 vote, with Benjamin in the majority.

In an opinion by Justice Kennedy in which Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer joined, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment. It reviewed a number of its prior decisions that, it said, collectively established that the due process clause requires recusal not only when a judge has "a direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest" in a case but also when "the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge . . . is too high to be constitutionally tolerable." The question is not whether the judge was actually influenced, but whether sitting on the case "would offer a possible temptation to the average . . . judge to . . . lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true." Aetna Life Inc. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813, 825 (1986). Although the degree of interest requiring recusal cannot be defined precisely, the standard has an objective component.

Applying these principles, the Court held that, given Blankenship's extraordinary efforts to secure Benjamin's election, due process required Benjamin's recusal from the appeal involving Blankenship's company. The Court made clear that it was not finding that Benjamin had actually been influenced or disputing his subjective findings that he had acted impartially. Nevertheless, it concluded that there is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case has "a significant and disproportionate influence" in the election of a judge to the court that will decide that case. Factors relevant to this conclusion included the relative size of Blankenship's contributions compared to the total amount contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election and "the apparent effect [the] contribution had on the outcome of the election." It was also relevant that the election occurred when the appeal of the Massey verdict was imminent, so that the election's effect on who would participate in deciding the appeal was obvious.

The Court went to some length to emphasize that the circumstances requiring recusal as a matter of constitutional law here were extraordinary. It noted that courts usually have little difficulty in applying the principles on which this decision rests and that most states (including West Virginia) have adopted judicial codes requiring recusal if the judge's impartiality "might reasonably be questioned"—a standard more demanding than due process requires. It therefore suggested that the need to invoke due process principles to resolve a recusal dispute should be "rare."

Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Scalia also filed a short, separate dissent. Chief Justice Roberts suggested that the Court's decision created more uncertainty than it resolved, identifying at least 40 questions that a court attempting to apply it in another case would have to resolve. He expressed concern that the decision will lead to increasingly frequent allegations of judicial bias and will do more to erode public confidence in the impartiality of the court system than would result from an isolated failure to recuse in a single case.

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