SCOTUS Rules: Caperton v. A. T. Massey

The United States Supreme Court ruled today in Caperton v. A. T. Massey, No. 08-22, that the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution required that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself in a case involving A. T. Massey.

In a case decided by a 5-4 vote, Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer joined, with Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito dissenting.   In a fact-driven decision, the majority reasoned that, as an objective matter, the Due Process Clause requires recusal by a judge where “the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutional,” quoting Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35.  

The majority then explained that the real question was not whether actual bias existed, making it clear that it did not question Justice Benjamin’s subjective findings of impartiality and propriety, but the question was whether, “under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,” the interest “poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.”  Withrow  at 47.  

 In this case, the Court found “[t]here is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant an 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.”  

As for the test to be applied, “[t]he proper inquiry centers on the contribution’s relative size in comparison to the total amount contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election, and the apparent effect of the contribution on the outcome.  It is not whether the contributions were a necessary and sufficient cause of [judge’s] victory.

In the end, the majority dismiss fears that its decision would result in a flood of recusal motions or in unnecessary interference with judicial elections by pointing to the “extreme by any measure” facts of this case.  

In a news article on the decision, Reuters reports that A. T. Massey’s General Counsel continues to be confident that the same result will be reached on remand of the case back to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.  

“While we are disappointed in the outcome of the Court’s close vote, our outlook about the ultimate resolution of this legal matter remains positive,” Shane Harvey, Massey’s General Counsel, said in a statement.

“We are confident that the Harman case was properly decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court initially and believe that any new examination of the same facts and same laws by new justices should yield the same result as before.” 

U.S court:  Recusal required in Massey Energy case,” Reuters, June 8, 2009.

Of course, beyond the immediate question whether recusal will lead to a different result in this particular case, the broader questions are whether the decision will impact the commission now studying potential changes to the West Virginia judicial system, including the process for selecting judges, and whether recusal motions will become more frequent despite assurances from the majority to the contrary. 

As always, please keep me in mind should you need a mediator in any commercial litigation or other matters.

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