Supreme Court Requires Recusal When Invested Party Contributed $3 Million to Judge’s Campaign

07/09/2009 / Chris M. Heffelbower and Breanna L. Christensen*

The United States Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., No. 08-22 (2009), requiring elected judges to recuse themselves on cases where an invested party contributed substantial campaign money. This is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on the power of the Constitution to review the influence that contributions to judicial campaigns may have on judges. The decision could affect the way cases are heard in states like Minnesota where most judges are elected to their positions.

The case presented an extraordinary situation for the Supreme Court to consider. In 2004, while an appeal of the decision holding Massey Coal Company liable for $50 million in damages was pending, Massey’s chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, contributed $3 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Blankenship’s campaign contribution was three times the contribution by Benjamin’s own committee. Benjamin later defeated the incumbent justice, winning the election by less than 50,000 votes.

The issue for the Supreme Court arose when Justice Benjamin, who is now chief justice, refused to recuse himself from hearing the case, despite repeated requests, when the West Virginia court heard the appeal. Justice Benjamin cast the deciding vote on appeal, reversing the $50 million judgment against Massey in a 3-2 decision. Upon rehearing, Justice Benjamin again refused to recuse himself, citing a lack of bias or impartiality, and again ruled in favor of Massey.

Caperton petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, claiming Justice Benjamin’s refusal to disqualify himself violated Caperton’s due process rights, including the right to a fair trial. The Court agreed with Caperton in a 5-4 vote, holding Justice Benjamin’s refusal to recuse himself violated established objective standards and presented an “intolerable probability of actual bias.”

Justice Kennedy, writing for himself and Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer, wrote “whether Blankenship’s campaign contributions were a necessary and sufficient cause of Benjamin’s victory is not the proper inquiry.” Instead, the Constitution requires recusal when an interested party’s contributions create a “disproportionate influence” in a pending case.

Further, the Court held that it does not matter whether there was actual evidence of bias. In this case, however, there was a “serious risk of actual bias.” To determine if such risk exists, the Court concluded that, “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.” The fact that the substantial contributions by Blankenship were made at a time when he had a vested interest in the outcome of a pending case was cause to require Justice Benjamin to recuse himself.

The strong dissent in Caperton, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., argued the decision only increased confusion for elected judges. Chief Justice Roberts noted that the Court previously recognized two specific situations in which the Federal Due Process Clause requires recusal, when the judge has a financial interest in the outcome of a case and when the judge is trying a defendant for certain criminal contempt. The dissent argued that the Caperton facts did not fall under either of the situations requiring recusal. Instead, the decision was based on “vague notions of bias,” the recognition of which will lead to a flood of meritless appeals, they argued.

So what does the decision mean for you? In deciding the West Virginia case, the Court held that the Constitutional Due Process requirements are minimum standards for judges. The Court recognized that states are free to adopt more stringent requirements to ensure impartiality, and most have done so, including Minnesota.

Minnesota’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires that judges perform their duties without bias or prejudice and, in the event impartiality may be questioned, a judge is required to disqualify him or herself. The Court’s decision in Caperton could have the effect of altering Minnesota judges’ decisions to recuse themselves, especially in light of increasingly politicized judicial elections.

The decision is the first time the Supreme Court has overruled a judge’s decision not to recuse him or herself on the basis of campaign contributions. Normally, courts are reluctant to interfere with a judge’s decision to recuse him or herself, especially on the basis of money contributions. In this case, however, the Supreme Court considered the facts to be extreme, warranting the Court’s decision to overrule Justice Benjamin’s refusal. The Caperton decision represents the Constitutional ceiling on the timing and amount an invested party can contribute to a judicial campaign without requiring disqualification of the judge.

*Ms. Christensen is a 2009 Summer Law Clerk at Larkin Hoffman Law Firm.