Supreme Court Reverses Decision in Caperton v. Massey

June 8, 2009

For Immediate Release:
Contact: Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, 212-998-6289
Susan Lehman, 212-998-6318

In 5 to 4 Vote, Major Victory for the Rule of Law


New York
Today, in a major victory for the rule of law, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the landmark case of Caperton v. Massey, reversing the decision of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals by a 5 to 4 vote.

"There has been an unprecedented flood of money into judicial elections in the states," said Susan Liss, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "And this decision makes clear that campaign contributions must not be permitted to undermine the impartiality of the courts."

"This is a major victory for the rule of law," stated James Sample, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. "The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the fundamental principle that money should not influence the courts, and that justice should not be for sale."

This landmark case brought together an unlikely set of allies who supported Caperton in his bid for an impartial tribunal. The strange bedfellows included former state Supreme Court justices, corporations like Wal-Mart and Lockheed Martin, and advocates for fair courts like the Brennan Center for Justice and the Campaign Legal Center.

"The remarkable coalition supporting Caperton's position speaks to the considerable effect the outcome will have on our judicial system—and the widely recognized need to ensure that the courts continue to dispense fair and impartial justice," Liss observed.

In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Supreme Court grappled with the question whether the fundamental right to a fair hearing before a neutral arbiter required disqualification of a judge in a case where one party to litigation had given extraordinary campaign contributions to the judge while the party's case was pending. Against a backdrop of a dramatic rise of special interest spending in judicial elections nationwide, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued before the Supreme Court on March 3 that the Constitution's due-process clause required a West Virginia Judge to recuse himself from a lawsuit involving an executive who spent $3 million to elect the judge. Those expenditures, which came at the same time the court was considering the executive's case, were more than all other contributions to the judge's election, combined.

Emphasizing that a "fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process," the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution required recusal under the circumstances of the case. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, and was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Chief Judge Roberts issued a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, and Justice Scalia also filed a dissenting opinion.

Background materials on the case, including all the amicus briefs filed, can be found here. The Brennan Center's amicus brief can be found here.

For more information or to set up an interview with James Sample, please contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin at 212-998-6289 or jeanine.plant-chirlin@nyu.edu, Susan Lehman at 212-998-6318 or susan.lehman@nyu.edu. You can also contact James Sample directly at 406- 690-3947.

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