Commentary: Sometimes a muddy decision from Supreme Court is good

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a muddy decision on corruption in state judicial elections. But this is a case where muddy is good.

In Caperton v. Massey Coal Company, the nation's high court faced a situation where a mining company executive in West Virginia spent more than $3 million to influence a judicial election — in an audacious attempt to get a favorable ruling in a lawsuit involving his company.

The five-justice majority (with Sacramento's Anthony Kennedy writing the opinion) could have dictated a one-size-fits-all solution for judicial elections in all the states. Instead, the five concluded that the buying of judicial elections is a problem that can be solved in many ways in the 39 states that hold judicial elections. This decision affirms the role of states as "laboratories of experimentation."

Here's what happened in West Virginia. A mining executive seeking to overturn the decision of a lower court against his mining company decided to promote the candidacy of an attorney to replace a justice in the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. He spent more than $3 million to unseat the incumbent and get his candidate elected – more than the total amount spent by the campaign committees of both judicial candidates combined.

His guy, Brent Benjamin, won. The mining company then moved to appeal the case. Another justice who had vacationed with the mining executive in the French Riviera while the case was pending did the right thing and recused himself. But Benjamin did not.

Benjamin then was the deciding vote in a 3-2 decision in favor of the mining company.

Imagine if you were the other party trying to persuade the court to take your side in this case. Would you believe that Justice Benjamin could be fair and impartial?

To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.