WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court put elected judges on notice Monday that they must step aside from deciding cases involving big-money donors who helped them win their jobs.
The decision comes after a decade in which corporate interests and trial lawyers have waged increasingly costly campaigns for 21 states' supreme court seats. Most are in the Great Lakes region or the South.
The justices said Monday that there is a real risk of bias -- and certainly the appearance of it -- if one side has spent millions to elect the judge.
"Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision, so too can fears of bias arise when "a man chooses the judge in his own cause."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 12, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Supreme Court: An article in Tuesday's Section A about a Supreme Court ruling on whether elected judges can be on cases involving their donors said that in California, Superior Court judges are elected. Most are appointed by the governor, but they do stand for reelection.
Case was criticized
The case centered on Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal company executive who spent $3 million of his own money to oust one West Virginia Supreme Court justice and to elect his replacement.
At the time, Blankenship and his Massey Coal Co. were appealing a $50-million jury verdict for having driven a small competitor into bankruptcy. After the election, new Justice Brent Benjamin cast the deciding vote -- twice -- to throw out the verdict against Massey.
The case drew wide criticism as a seemingly blatant example of how money could buy justice, and it suggested the plot for a John Grisham novel, "The Appeal." The West Virginia case also spotlighted growing concern over the effect of money in state high court races.
(In California, Superior Court judges are elected, but the governor appoints state Supreme Court justices.)
The Supreme Court did not set a hard or clear rule for when a judge must step aside. The four dissenters called the ruling hazy.
But Kennedy said the principle of fairness requires that a judge not decide cases for a favored benefactor.
"Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias," Kennedy said. But "when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence" in putting the judge on the case, that judge would have to step aside, he wrote.
In one sense, the court's ruling puts legal force behind a long-standing provision in the judicial code that says a judge "shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." This code applies to all judges, including those on the Supreme Court. But unlike other judges, its justices alone get to decide whether they have violated the code.
This issue arose in 2004 when the Sierra Club asked Justice Antonin Scalia to step aside from deciding a case involving Vice President Dick Cheney and his energy policy task force. Scalia had gone duck hunting with Cheney in Louisiana shortly after the court agreed to hear his case.
Scalia refused to step aside, saying that the case involved the office of the vice president, not Cheney personally.
On Monday, he dissented along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The ruling in the West Virginia case "will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be," Roberts wrote in the dissent, which Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. also joined.
Legal reformers praised the ruling. "This is an appropriately narrow ruling that represents a huge victory for a very basic principle: the right to a fair hearing," said James Sample, a lawyer for the Brennan Center in New York. "It sets a floor. Now, it is up to the states."
Contribution limits may not be the answer, he noted. Blankenship gave the legal limit of $1,000 directly to Benjamin's campaign. But he spent $3 million through two independent groups to fund mailings and ads in favor of Benjamin.
Benjamin ousted a justice who was seen as more favorable to plaintiffs.
Massey's case came before the five-member West Virginia Supreme Court twice. In the first ruling, the court by a 3-2 margin threw out the verdict on the grounds that the lawsuit was brought in the wrong place. When questions arose about fairness, the court agreed to rehear the matter.
Two justices stepped aside, but Benjamin refused to do so. When a reconstituted court heard the issue again, the result was another 3-2 ruling in favor of Massey, with Benjamin voting in the majority.
Hugh Caperton, whose small company was driven into bankruptcy by Massey, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court after the West Virginia ruling.
The case of Caperton vs. A.T. Massey Coal split Kennedy's colleagues along the usual liberal-conservative lines, with Kennedy joining the liberal bloc. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer signed his opinion.
The high court's ruling today sent the matter back to the West Virginia court, with the requirement that Benjamin step aside.
The decision does not directly affect federal judges because none of them run for election.