Court: Judges Must Avoid Appearance Of Bias

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a West Virginia judge should have stepped aside from a case involving one of his big campaign contributors. The chief executive of a company involved in a lawsuit had given $3 million to the judge's election campaign.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And first this hour, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling today in a major case that could affect elections for judges across the country. The court said elected judges are barred from participating in cases involving disproportionately large financial players in their campaigns. The five-to-four ruling comes at a time when spending on judicial elections is increasing.

NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg has our story.

NINA TOTENBERG: Thirty-nine states elect some or all of their judges. So, it's a very big deal when the Supreme Court rules for the first time that the Constitution, in some cases, requires a judge to step down because of money that supported his or her election. And that's exactly what the Supreme Court did today. The case, as the court noted, is an extreme one. It was brought by Hugh Caperton, the owner of a small West Virginia mining company, who claims he was illegally run out of business by the Massey Coal Company, the fourth largest in the nation.

A West Virginia jury agreed and ordered Massey Coal to pay Caperton $50 million in damages. With the case pending before the State Supreme Court, Massey's CEO spent three million dollars to help elect a lawyer named Brent Benjamin(ph) to that court and to defeat a sitting justice. That was more than all the other contributions and spending for Benjamin combined. And when Caperton versus Massey came before the state Supreme Court, the new justice refused three times to recuse himself, repeatedly casting the deciding vote to reverse the jury's award.

Caperton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that he'd been denied his constitutional right to due process of law before a fair and impartial tribunal. And today, the Supreme Court agreed by a five-to-four vote. Hugh Caperton got the news when he checked the Supreme Court's Web site this morning.

Mr. HUGH CAPERTON (President, Harman Mining Corporation): We jumped up and down and cried. We're just so excited. We're really, really happy.

TOTENBERG: The case will not go back to the West Virginia Supreme Court for reconsideration without Justice Benjamin participating. Massey Coal today issued a statement declaring that it still expects to win. But the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling could leave deep track marks in the American system of justice. Writing for the five member court majority today, Justice Anthony Kennedy sought to minimize the impact, saying that not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal.

But he said this case did. We conclude, he said, that there is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on a case, by raising funds or directing the campaign, at a time when the case was pending or imminent. There's no way to know whether Justice Benjamin was actually biased the court said. But the temptations to shade are inescapably there and under the code of judicial conduct legitimate fears arise when, in effect, a man chooses his own judge.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the principle to stand for himself and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito. The court's decision, he said, will lead to a flood of similar allegations with no clear rule to guide the lower courts. And he listed 40 questions that he said were unresolved by today's ruling, including how much money is too much. How do we determine what's disproportionate? What if the case involves a social or ideological issue rather than a financial one? Must a judge recuse himself, for example, if he got disproportionate support from pro-life or pro-choice groups?

Former Texas Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Conference of Chief Justices, said his organization is pleased that the Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand but left the states with flexibility.

Mr. TOM PHILLIPS (Former Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court): The court has certainly invited the states to explore whether more concrete rules on the state level, that would exceed that due process for, are needed.

TOTENBERG: James Sample, a judicial elections expert at the Brennan Center agreed that the code of judicial conduct needs more teeth.

Mr. JAMES SAMPLE (Judicial Elections Expert, Brennan Center): It's an indication to the states that the code and the standards need to have some enforcement mechanisms that are in fact objective.

TOTENBERG: The American Bar Association model code of judicial conduct recommends that the states require a judge to recuse himself if his campaign has benefited beyond a set amount from a litigant or a lawyer. While most states have adopted other parts of the model code, so far, not one state has put in place a campaign contribution limit that would automatically trigger recusal.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Court Rules Judges Must Avoid Appearance Of Bias

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that elected judges must step aside in cases involving large campaign contributions from interested parties to avoid the appearance of bias, a decision that could have implications in 39 states where voters choose judges.

In a 5-4 vote, the court decided that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin deprived Harman Mining Co. of the right to a fair trial because he participated in a case involving a major contributor to his campaign.

Harman executives had complained that there was the appearance of bias because the chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. contributed $3 million to Benjamin's election campaign at the same time Massey was appealing a multimillion-dollar jury verdict — now totaling $82.7 million — against Harman.

Benjamin refused to recuse himself and voted with the 3-2 majority to overturn the verdict. Harman appealed to the Supreme Court.

The high court's more liberal justices sided with Harman.

Justice Anthony Kennedy labeled the facts of the case "extreme" because the $3 million that Massey CEO Don Blankenship contributed to unseat the court's incumbent and support Benjamin's campaign had a "significant and disproportionate influence" in putting Benjamin on the case.

"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," Kennedy wrote for the majority.

But he also noted that not every campaign contribution requires a judge's recusal.

The nonpartisan group Justice at Stake hailed the decision as a victory.

"The Supreme Court said, 'Enough is enough.' Today's ruling is a critical first step. But states that elect judges must get to work now, to keep campaign cash out of our courts of law," Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement on the group's Web site.

Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says that at least some judges are elected in 39 states, and that many allow the individual judge to decide if he or she should be recused from a case. It also says judicial candidates have raised more than $168 million since 2000.

"Special-interest spending on judicial elections has soared since the 1990s, leading some to say justice is now 'for sale,' " the group said in a review of the West Virginia case.

The Supreme Court also issued decisions in several other cases:

— The justices ruled unanimously that the Iraqi government cannot be sued for actions that took place under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Foreign governments are immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts, but federal law strips that protection from countries that support terrorism. Under Saddam, Iraq was considered a state sponsor of terrorism.

But the court agreed with Iraq's assertion that the U.S.-led invasion that deposed Saddam and a federal law that was enacted in 2003 restored the country's immunity to lawsuits.

— The court turned down a challenge to the Pentagon policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, granting a request by the Obama administration to maintain the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" directive.

The justices refused to hear an appeal from former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was dismissed under the military policy. A federal appeals court in Boston earlier threw out a lawsuit filed by Pietrangelo and 11 other veterans, but Pietrangelo asked the high court to rule that the policy is unconstitutional.

— The court refused to hear an appeal from two former top executives of Tyco International that challenges their convictions for fraud and larceny involving more than $100 million in bonuses. The justices' action ends the effort by Tyco's former CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski and former CFO Mark Swartz to overturn their convictions. They are serving prison terms of between eight and 25 years for taking unauthorized pay.

The former executives maintained they were denied access to certain documents that would have helped persuade the jury of their innocence.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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