The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to take up a West Virginia case that could trigger the Court's first major review of the impact of increasingly costly judicial elections on the appearance and reality of justice at the state level.
After several weeks of unexplained delay in acting on the case, the Court announced it was granting review in Caperton v. Massey, which asks when a campaign donation by a party in a case is large enough that the judge receiving the donation must recuse to avoid violating due process rights. Legal Times previewed the case in August. The American Bar Association and other civic and business groups filed briefs at the petition stage -- a rarity -- to underline the urgency and importance of the issue in light of increasingly political, money-drenched state judicial elections.
"The question at issue here is central to the future of our court system," said David Fawcett of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Pittsburgh, reacting to Friday's Court action in a statement. "We are eager to continue the fight for a fair system, where judges who have received the benefit of vast sums of money from a litigant or witness in a case must step aside from hearing the case."
Fawcett, along with Theodore Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, represents petitioner Hugh Caperton and his company, Harman Development Corp. The company won a $50 million fraud verdict against A.T. Massey Coal Co., which was reversed by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 2004. Massey's CEO Don Blankenship had donated $3 million to help elect Brent Benjamin to the state appeals court, but when Massey's case went before his court, Benjamin refused to recuse. He cast the deciding vote in favor of Massey. Benjamin defended his decision not to recuse by stating he had no personal financial stake in the outcome of the case.
Several justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, including now-retired Sandra Day O'Connor, have voiced concern over the influence of money in judicial elections. At a conference last month at Georgetown University Law Center, O'Connor said, "Justice is a special commodity ... The more you pay for it, maybe, the less it is worth." The Brennan Center for Justice and other reform groups have urged enactment of tougher rules that would require judges to recuse in cases involving donors above a threshold dollar amount.
The high court also granted review in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It is yet another challenge to the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, filed by a conservative group that produced an anti-Hillary Clinton film and advertisements that were found to violate the law by lower courts.
Both cases, along with three other criminal law cases granted Friday, will be set for argument next spring.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.