Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Due Process and Recusal by Judges

In most states, unlike the federal system, judges are elected. Proponents of election of judges point out that elections keep judges accountable to the public. Opponents worry about the election process itself and its requirement for judicial candidates to raise funds for the campaigns. See, for example, the January issue of volume 34 of the Fordham Urban Law Journal, which contains the "Symposium on Rethinking Judicial Selection: A Critical Appraisal of Appointive Selection for State Court Judges" (2007).

On Monday, 6/8/2009, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co, Inc., (08-22). The issue involved whether a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice should have recused himself in a case involving the financial interests of a major contributor to his election campaign. The Court held, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Kennedy, that, under the particular circumstances of this case, its "extraordinary situation," due process required that the Judge recuse himself.

Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal Co., spent $3 million dollars in the campaign to elect West Virginia Justice Benjamin. Justice Kennedy stated that Blankenship's "contributions eclipsed the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and exceeded by 300% the amount spent by Benjamin's campaign committee." Kennedy also found significant when the campaign occurred: "The temporal relationship between the campaign contributions, the justice's election, and the pendency of the case is also critical. It was reasonably foreseeable, when the campaign contributions were made, that the pending case would be before the newly elected justice. The $50 million adverse jury verdict had been entered before the election, and the Supreme Court of Appeals was the next step once the state trial court dealt with post-trial motions. So it became at once apparent that, absent recusal, Justice Benjamin would review a judgment that cost his biggest donor's company $50 million."

1 comment:

Brooks Lindsay said...

Debatepedia just finished a really extensive pro/con article on the election of judges. I would say the most promising arguments against electing judges is that voters are simply not good at choosing experts (in the law or elsewhere), that politics can be an ugly field and it's good to keep on branch of government out of it, and that conflicts of interest involving campaign funders are inevitable.