As Urged by CAC, Supreme Court Adheres to the Text & History of the Due Process Clause in Caperton v. Massey Coal

In a resounding victory for due process of law, the Supreme Court today held in Caperton v. Massey Coal that the Constitution was violated by an elected West Virginia state Supreme Court judge’s refusal to recuse himself from hearing an appeal involving his largest single campaign supporter. In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court agreed that the judge’s disqualification was required based on the “extreme” facts of the case.

As we have discussed previously, Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Coal Company, contributed millions of dollars to get Brent Benjamin elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court– more than 60% of the total amount spent in support of Benjamin’s candidacy. Once seated, Benjamin refused – against the complaints of colleagues on the bench – to recuse himself from hearing an appeal in which Massey Coal sought to overturn a $50 million fraud verdict against the company. Instead, Benjamin cast the deciding vote overturning the verdict. When the appeal was later reheard due to a different judge’s revealed conflict of interest and recusal, Benjamin once again refused to recuse himself, and once again cast the deciding vote in favor of Massey Coal, prompting petitioner Hugh Caperton to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause required Benjamin to recuse himself because the probability of bias under the circumstances of the case was intolerably high. As the Supreme Court noted, “Blankenship’s extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome” of the $50 million fraud case involving Massey Coal. Given these facts, the Court concluded that Justice Benjamin could hardly help but “feel a debt of gratitude to Blankenship for his extraordinary efforts to get him elected.” In reaching this conclusion, Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, looked to “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 contribution had on the outcome of the election.”

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, dissented , expressing their belief that “opening the door to recusal claims under the Due Process Clause, for an amorphous ‘probability of bias,’ will itself bring our judicial system into undeserved disrepute, and diminish the confidence of the American people in the fairness and integrity of their courts.” Justice Scalia also wrote his own a separate dissent, accusing the majority of pursuing a “quixotic quest to right all wrongs and repair all imperfections through the Constitution.”

We at Text & History, however, are delighted with the Court’s opinion. On behalf of 28 national and state organizations concerned with judicial reform, including Justice at Stake, Appleseed, Common Cause and the American Judicature Society, Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) filed an amicus brief in Caperton explaining that our Constitution’s text and history require that in every state, throughout America, we have a fair system of justice. The Court today echoed that conclusion, explaining that its ruling was commanded by “the text and purpose of the law and the Constitution.”

A judge’s impartiality is the bedrock qualification for dispensing justice, and the high court acknowledged today that every person, in any court, deserves a hearing before a judge who is, and who appears to be, fair and unbiased. The dissenting Justices claim that this ruling will open the floodgates of litigation, but as documented by the majority, the facts of this case are unique and state laws are already stricter in many cases than the Constitution requires. Instead of opening the floodgates of litigation, we believe this ruling will encourage ongoing efforts to reform judicial ethics and elections, including the trailblazing efforts of CAC’s amicus coalition, which you can learn more about here.

Read more about CAC’s brief here, and about oral argument here.

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