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Caperton v. A.T.Massey Coal Co., Inc

Citation. 556 U.S. 868 (2009)
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Brief Fact Summary.

A judge in a state court was to hear a case in which the defendant had been ordered to pay $50 million. He refused to recuse himself from the bench though the person involved had backed his election to the bench with a donation of $3 million. The plaintiff alleged a breach of justice.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A state judge is prohibited by the constitution from hearing a case in which the financial interests of any of his major election campaign backers are involved.


Hugh Caperton (P) brought a case against A.T.Massey Coal Co., Inc.(Massey) (D) on the grounds that Massey (D) had illegally cancelled a contract. The cancellation bankrupted Caperton. The West Virginia court jury brought a verdict of guilty against Massey (D) and its affiliates, finding them punishable on charges of fraud in representation, concealment and intentional interference with the existing obligations of the company’s contract. The jury awarded compensation and damages against the company to the sum of $50 million. Before the next step of appealing the verdict was taken, judicial elections (2004) in West Virginia came up. One of the candidates was Brent Benjamin, and his biggest backer was Massey’s (D) chairman, CEO and president, Don Blankenship. He gave $1,000 to Benjamin’s campaign committee, which was the maximum allowed under the law, donated approximately $ 2.5 million to a political party that supported Benjamin and spent another $ 500,000 on other costs in the campaign. The total expenditure of Blankenship on Benjamin’s election surpassed the sum total contributed by everyone else, and was  three times as much as Benjamin’s own committee spent on their candidate. Benjamin won the election. Caperton (P) moved court to disqualify the new judge citing the Due Process Clause which guarantees a fair trial to all citizens, and the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct, giving as grounds the conflict of interest caused by Blankenship’s massive involvement in the election campaign. Justice Benjamin refused to grant the motion. Massey (D) now filed its appeal petition, and the decision was reversed. Justice Benjamin joined the majority opinion. Caperton (P) requested a rehearing, and both parties moved court to obtain disqualification of three out of the five judges who heard the appeal. Judge Benjamin repeated his denial of Caperton’s (P) motion to have him recused. After the rehearing motion was granted, Caperton (P) moved a third time to have the judge disqualified from the hearing. It was again refused, and the rehearing ended in a divided court reversing the jury verdict again.


Is it against the constitutional rights for a state judge to hear a case which involves the financial interests of one of his big backers for election


(Kennedy, J.) Yes. A state judge acts unconstitutionally when he serves on a case involving the financial interests of one of his major election campaign backers. The Due Process Clause makes it necessary that the trial should be fair and impartial. In the case of Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927), the conclusion was drawn that this clause makes use of the common law rule that a judge must disqualify himself from any case where he has an interest, whether of a financial, personal, direct or substantial kind. This rule does not provide for recusal in case of personal bias or prejudice without an interest of the kind above. The Court went on over the years to add other situations where it would be necessary for a judge to recuse himself. The objective view of these cases gives rise to the conclusion that it is so probable that the judge will have actual bias that he could not serve in these cases. Some such situations are if a judge has a financial interest in the outcome of a case, even if the interest is so small as not to be considered personal or direct interest; if a judge has been part of an earlier judicial process involving a criminal contempt case, con) flict might be present and recusal is required. The campaign contribution which exerted a major influence in Benjamin’s election was from a person who had a personal stake in the case, and was at a time when the present appeal was imminent. The enormous relative percentage of the contribution, out of the total contributed sum and the total election expenditure, as well as the apparent influence of that contribution on the outcome, that is, Benjamin’s election, arouses inquiry as to the presence of bias. It is at least possible that it was this large contribution which resulted in replacing the incumbent judge with Benjamin. This makes the possibility of bias sufficiently strong that Justice Benjamin must be recused in order to guarantee a free and fair trial. This is especially so in view of the fact that the next step in the case was the Supreme Court of Appeals once the post-trial motions had been decided. Blankenship must have realized that if not recused, Justice Benjamin would be on the bench which reviewed his case. This is easily taken to mean that Blankenship practically chose his judge, and that the serious fisk of actual bias required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.


(Roberts, C.J.) The majority opinion was unwise in widening the list of situations for which a judge needs to recuse himself, by adding the probability that bias exists to the list. This criterion is vague and leaves too much to one’s discretion. It does not make the guidelines clear and practical. It does not even clarify whether the probability of bias is to be a criterion for recusal only when a judge has received financial support for his judicial election from a party to a case he is to hear, or whether this standard is for all recusal questions. Forty unanswered questions remain after the majority judgment.
(Scalia, J.) The majority of the judges in this case failed to clarify this area and instead made it much more vague. This decision can be called upon in all cases in all 39 states which elect their judicial officers, at least. While the rationale behind the decision was to keep the public confidence in the legal system intact, the decision is likely to do just the opposite, reducing the confidence of the people in the system with the impression it gives that legal remedies are an elaborate and self-sustaining game which allows the person with the cleverest lawyer to win, rather than a system concerned with delivering justice in the real world




The importance of the verdict is in that the Supreme Court here set a new standard for recusal of judges by ruling that a judge should have removed himself from the hearing of a suit which had as one party a businessman who had helped him in his election to the tune of $3 million. This is likely to have many results since 39 states currently practice judicial election.

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