On June 8, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., No. 08-22 (2009). The long-awaited decision results from the refusal of West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself in a high-profile case. The case stems from the appeal of a $50 million fraud verdict against Massey Coal, which Justice Benjamin voted to reverse. While Massey was preparing the appeal, its CEO, Don Blankenship, spent $3 million supporting Justice Benjamin’s 2004 campaign for a seat on the court. Although Caperton has been billed as a case about judicial campaign contributions, Blankenship contributed only $1,000 directly to Justice Benjamin’s campaign. The rest of Blankenship’s support came in the form of so-called “independent expenditures.” (Roberts, C.J., dissenting, Slip Op. at 13.) After winning the election and taking his seat on the court, Justice Benjamin cast the deciding vote to overturn the verdict against Massey.
The Court concluded that Justice Benjamin’s failure to recuse himself violated due process. In a 5-4 ruling penned by Justice Kennedy, the majority reasoned that Blankenship’s campaign contributions had a “significant and disproportionate influence in placing” Justice Benjamin “on the case” while “the case was pending or imminent.” (Slip Op. at 14.) The Court repeatedly stressed that its opinion was necessarily limited to “these extreme facts” and stated that recusal standards “cannot be stated with precision.” (Slip Op. at 16, 17.) The Court did note, however, that the “temporal relationship between the campaign contributions, the justice’s election, and the pendency of the case” was critical to its decision.
Although the dissenters suggest that it will be worthwhile for litigants to search the campaign disclosures of elected judges, it is unclear whether Caperton will actually be applied to reverse judicial recusal decisions in a significant number of future cases. Justice Kennedy noted that the case involved facts “extreme by any measure” and predicted that the case would not result in “a flood of recusal motions.” (Slip Op. at 17.) Chief Justice Roberts, in dissent, however, listed forty “uncertainties” raised by the Caperton decision that he anticipates “[j]udges and litigants will surely encounter” in the decision’s wake. He predicted that the majority’s creation of an “amorphous” constitutional standard for recusal would prove the truth of the aphorism “hard cases make bad law.” (Roberts, C.J., dissenting, Slip. Op. at 11, 14.) Regardless of which prediction is right, at a minimum, Caperton sounds a warning shot to elected judges and provides litigants with an expanded basis upon which to seek recusal of elected judges