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On Anniversary of Caperton v. Massey, Recusal Rules Still an Issue

Legal sagas like Caperton’s underscore the pressing need to strengthen recusal rules, particularly as spending in state high court elections skyrockets.

  • Allyse Falce
June 6, 2014

Nearly two weeks before the five-year anniversary of Caperton v. Massey this week, plaintiff Hugh Caperton was finally awarded $5 million in damages in his case against the A.T. Massey Coal Company, who broke a coal-supply contract that put Caperton’s company out of business in 1997. The long-standing legal battle made headlines throughout its time in court, shining light on recusal rules as a way to achieve fair and impartial justice. But in spite of Caperton’s lessons about the rising influence of money on state high court elections, recusal rules — which require judges to sit out of a case if they have a conflict of interest — remain inadequate across the country. 

A West Virginia jury first ruled for Caperton to the tune of $50 million back in 2002. While Massey prepared to appeal the large settlement decision, a West Virginia lawyer named Brent Benjamin launched a campaign for state Supreme Court justice. Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal, spent $3 million supporting Benjamin’s 2004 election. Justice Benjamin won the race and refused to recuse himself from Caperton when it later came before the Court, casting the deciding vote (3–2) to overturn $50 million in damages against Massey. 

Caperton appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where the 5–4 majority ruled that Benjamin should have removed himself from the case. The justices concluded that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a judge to recuse themselves when the timing and size of campaign spending, whether it be direct contributions or independent expenditures, create a “serious risk of actual bias.”

The Court ruled that Blankenship’s campaign spending, which was mostly used to fund independent expenditures such as television ads, gave him a “significant and disproportionate influence” over Benjamin’s election. And while Caperton had not yet reached the West Virginia Supreme Court at the time of Benjamin’s campaign, the Court still found that “it was reasonably foreseeable, when the campaign contributions were made, that the pending case would be before the newly elected justice.”

Legal sagas like Caperton’s underscore the pressing need to strengthen recusal rules, particularly as spending in state high court elections skyrockets. Fewer than two dozen groups have been responsible for approximately $1 out of every $4 spent on independent expenditures or given to state supreme court candidates since 1999. With enough money, one person could fund the election of a sympathetic justice, guaranteeing they have a friend on the bench for years to come.

Recusal rules operate to avoid the appearance of impropriety. They provide a fair and effective way to remove judges from cases when apparent conflicts of interest arise, mitigating the undue impact that campaign support from litigants and lawyers can have on our justice system. 

Recusal rules also increase public confidence in the judiciary. Even if Justice Benjamin did not overturn the damages against Massey Coal because of the money Blankenship gave his campaign, it appears that way to the public. When justices are able to rule in favor of the companies that spent millions to elect them, the public loses faith in fairness of our courts. When a court adopts and enforces strong recusal rules, it sends a message to the people that it will not tolerate favoritism.

Despite the ways in which recusal rules can strengthen the judiciary, few states have chosen to adopt them. Of the 39 states that hold judicial elections, 22 lack recusal rules addressing the disqualification of judges who received significant campaign contributions from parties appearing before them in court. Additionally, 35 states do not have rules to address independent expenditures made in support of a judge, which Blankenship demonstrated could comprise the majority of a campaign spender’s funds.

In fact, the 2011–12 judicial election cycle cost more than $56 million, with special interest groups and political parties spending $24 million on independent expenditures alone.  These numbers are not likely to decrease any time soon, making recusal rules all the more important.

States should adopt recusal standards that address the increasing presence of both campaign contributions and independent expenditures in high court elections, and judges should welcome these rules as a way to safeguard the impartiality of our courts. When recusal rules become more widely accepted, we will truly be able to ensure equal justice for all.