Politics & Government

Supreme Court makes it easier to force elected judges off cases

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday made it easier to force elected judges off cases if they've accepted big campaign contributions.

In a closely watched case from West Virginia, the court ruled that "significant" campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of "actual bias." The ruling could trigger more demands for judges in 39 states with elected judges, including California, Texas, and Washington, to recuse themselves from cases in which their campaign contributions could create conflicts.

"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 the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Writing for a 5-4 majority, Kennedy said that the ruling in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. resulted from "extraordinary" circumstances that won't often be repeated. The case involved a coal company executive's spending $3 million to help elect West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin, who later voted to reverse a $50 million judgment against the company.

The money spent by Massey President Don Blankenship was more than three times the total amount spent by all of Benjamin's other supporters combined. Benjamin nonetheless declined to recuse himself from the case.

"Though not a bribe or criminal influence, Justice Benjamin would nevertheless feel a debt of gratitude to Blankenship for his extraordinary efforts to get him elected," Kennedy wrote.

The four conservative dissenters, though, warned that a flood of recusal motions and judicial challenges will result from the decision.

"This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be," wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

Roberts enumerated 40 questions that he contends are now raised by the court's decision. For instance: How big a contribution is too big? Does it matter how much money is at stake in the underlying case?

The questions could become particularly pointed this year and next, as state supreme court candidates will be running for election in states including Pennsylvania, Idaho and Kentucky. In some states, judicial candidates run against one another. In other states, supreme court candidates periodically face retention elections.

Next year, for instance, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George is scheduled to face a retention election. In his 1998 retention election, anti-abortion groups financed an unsuccessful campaign against him because of his rulings.

In many counties, superior court judges, too, run for election.

"This is extremely significant," said Adam Skaggs, a counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, of the ruling. "It's a strong signal to the courts that money should not be used to influence justice."

Skaggs predicted that states will draft new rules for judicial recusals. States, for instance, could set contribution amounts that should trigger recusals.

State supreme court candidates reported raising $29 million last year, according to the group Justice at Stake. Third-party groups, often corporations with business before the courts, spent millions of additional dollars on advertising and other efforts.

Kennedy, writing for justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, stressed that "not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal."

Kennedy focused on the "contribution's relative size in comparison to the total amount of money contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election and the apparent effect such contributions had on the outcome of the election."

Separately, the court declined to hear a challenge to the military's policy that bars gays from serving openly and ruled unanimously that the Iraqi government can't be sued in U.S. courts for the actions of Saddam Hussein's regime.

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