Full text of the Court's decision

The United States Supreme Court ruled in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., that an appellee was denied due process of law when a justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the state's highest court), whose judicial campaign had been heavily funded by appellant's chairman, failed to recuse himself in appellant's appeal of a $50 million judgment against it. The 5-4 decision includes Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens in the majority, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissenting.

Facts and Proceedings Below

In 2002, a West Virginia jury found in favor of Hugh Caperton and other companies on their claims against A.T. Massey Coal Company and its affiliates for fraud and concealment, and awarded Caperton $50 million in damages. While Massey's motions for post-trial relief were pending in the trial court, Don Blankenship, Massey's chairman and principal officer, supported challenger Brent D. Benjamin against incumbent Justice McGraw for a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in the November 2004 election.

In June 2004 the trial court denied certain of Massey's motions. Benjamin won the seat in November 2004. (He is currently Chief Justice of the court.) Blankenship contributed the $1,000 statutory maximum to Benjamin's campaign committee and donated almost $2.5 million to a § 527 organization which supported Benjamin and opposed McGraw. Blankenship's donations accounted for more than two-thirds of the total funds raised by the § 527 organization. Blankenship also spent over $500,000 on independent expenditures, for direct mailings and letters soliciting donations and television and newspaper advertisements supporting Benjamin. Blankenship's $3 million in contributions were more than the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and three times the amount spent by Benjamin's own committee. Benjamin won the election.

In March 2005 the trial court denied Massey's remaining post-trial motions. Massey then filed a Petition for Appeal with the Supreme Court of Appeals, which the court granted on April 4, 2007.

Caperton moved to disqualify Justice Benjamin from hearing the case, citing Blankenship's support of Benjamin's campaign. Justice Benjamin denied the motion. The Supreme Court of Appeals then reversed the $50 million verdict against Massey by a 3-2 vote, with Justice Benjamin in the majority. On motion for rehearing, Justice Benjamin again refused to recuse himself, and in fact served as Acting Chief Justice (due to the recusal at the rehearing stage of the Chief Justice) -- which permitted him to select two state Circuit (trial) Court judges to sit in place of the Chief Justice and another justice who had recused himself from the rehearing. The court denied the motion for rehearing, maintaining its reversal of the verdict.

The Majority Opinion

The United States Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, reversed the judgment of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment mandates recusal not only where a judge has a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest" in a case, but also when, as an objective matter, "the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable."

The Court found the latter test to be met in this case. It noted that while Justice Benjamin's decisions refusing recusal included "a probing search into his actual motives and inclinations," and "he found none to be improper," the Court did not "question his subjective findings of impartiality and propriety. Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias." Rather, the Court held, under the Due Process Clause, the inquiry concerned "whether "under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness," the interest "poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented."

The Court added that "[n]ot 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," and 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. 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," due to Blankenship "contribut[ing] some $3 million to unseat the incumbent and replace him with Benjamin. His contributions eclipsed the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and exceeded by 300% the amount spent by Benjamin's campaign committee."

The Court also held that

The temporal relationship between the campaign contributions, the justice's election, and the pendency of the case is also critical. It was reasonably foreseeable, when the campaign contributions were made, that the pending case would be before the newly elected justice. The $50 million adverse jury verdict had been entered before the election, and the Supreme Court of Appeals was the next step once the state trial court dealt with post-trial motions. So it became at once apparent that, absent recusal, Justice Benjamin would review a judgment that cost his biggest donor's company $50 million. Although there is no allegation of a quid pro quo agreement, the fact remains that Blankenship's extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome. Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when - without the consent of the other parties - a man chooses the judge in his own cause. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was here a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin's recusal.

Finally, the Court noted that as many states' codes of judicial conduct "provide more protection than due process requires, most disputes over disqualification will be resolved without resort to the Constitution," meaning that "[a]pplication of the constitutional standard implicated in this case will thus be confined to rare instances."

The Dissenting Opinions

In the dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts asserted that the requirement to recuse when there existed a "probability of bias" depends upon a standard which "cannot be defined in any limited way," which "will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be." The Chief Justice then lists numerous hypothetical situations of possible conflict and asks if they would cause a need for recusal under the Court's standard. Justice Scalia also wrote separately, echoing the Chief Justice's concerns.

The Impact

How will Caperton impact judicial campaign funding or judicial recusals? While we will have to wait and see whether there is an impact on judicial campaign contributions, the immediate impact likely will be an increase in litigation on recusal issues, which -- as the dissenting opinion pointed out -- may result in decreased public confidence in the judicial system. For instance, judges standing for election are likely to face an increase in recusal motions. Unfortunately, an increase in the filing of recusal motions by litigants will likely feed into the already cynical public view about the integrity of an elected judiciary. As Chief Roberts Jr. stated in his dissenting opinion, "[t]he end result will do far more to erode the public confidence in judicial impartiality than to isolate failure to rescue in a particular case."