Statement of Constitutional Accountability Center on the Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. Supreme Court Decision June 8, 2009

Today, the Supreme Court affirmed a simple truth: the Constitution gives to every person the right to an unbiased judge in a fair court. On behalf of 28 national and state organizations concerned with judicial reform, Constitutional Accountability Center 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.”

As the Supreme Court’s ruling recites, the facts of Caperton were “extreme by any measure.”

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Coal Company, contributed millions of dollars, over 60% of the total amount spent in support of Brent Benjamin’s election to the West Virginia Supreme Court. As the Supreme Court notes, “Blankenship’s extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome” of a $50 million fraud case involving Blankenship’s company. 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.” According to Doug Kendall, CAC’s President, “If facts so bad they mirror a Grisham novel do not require disqualification, it’s hard to see what facts would.”

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 warn 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. As Elizabeth Wydra, CAC’s Chief Counsel said, “Instead of opening the floodgates of litigation, this ruling will encourage ongoing efforts to reform judicial ethics and elections, including the trailblazing efforts of CAC’s amicus coalition.”

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