The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that state judges who have received substantial campaign contributions from a party in a case must recuse themselves, a landmark decision that we suspect will generate reams of copy in the legal press for years to come. For the early take, we turned to The American Lawyer’s Supreme Court correspondent, Tony Mauro, who writes that the 5-to-4 decision in Caperton v. Massey Coal Co. “ introduces for the first time a constitutional standard into the debate over the influence of big money on judicial elections.”

The case, which has drawn national attention (as well as previous Litigation Daily coverage), was filed after Don Blankenship, chief executive officer of the Massey coal company, spent $3 million to help elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals–while the appeal of a $50 million punitive damages award against the company was on its way to that court. Benjamin was elected, refused repeated calls for his recusal, and ended up casting the deciding vote in favor of his benefactor’s company.

At the Supreme Court, Theodore Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher argued for Hugh Caperton, president of the company whose punitive damages verdict against Massey was thrown out. Andrew Frey of Mayer Brown–who has argued more high court cases than anyone else in private practice–represented Massey in oral arguments. Monday’s ruling means the Caperton case will be returned to the West Virginia Supreme Court, where it will be reheard without Judge Benjamin’s participation.

“Mr. Caperton and I are extremely pleased by the Supreme Court’s decision today, which reaffirms that all Americans have a constitutional right to a fair trial before an unbiased judge,” said Olson in an e-mail statement. “Mr. Caperton is looking forward to presenting his case again before a new panel of neutral and unbiased justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that due process “requires an objective inquiry into whether the contributor’s influence on the election under all the circumstances ‘would offer a possible temptation to the average [judge to] lead him not to hold the balance, nice, clear and true.’” Kennedy emphasized that the Court’s ruling affects only extreme cases like Caperton, noting that the parties in the case could “point to no other instance involving judicial campaign contributions that presents a potential for bias comparable to the circumstances in [Caperton].” Kennedy also said that campaign contributions do not inherently create a probability of bias.

Supporters of the ruling, Mauro writes, expressed hope that the opinion would spur states to rethink judicial elections and move to merit-based selection of judges. American Bar Association president H. Thomas Wells, Jr., announced that the ABA will develop “a series of guidelines for courts to assess whether contributions to judges’ campaigns implicate the due process rights of parties appearing before them.”

The dissenting justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., said the majority’s ruling sets a vague standard that will trigger a flood of meritless “Caperton recusal motions” and sully the reputation of the judiciary. “The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case,” Roberts warned. He then listed 40 questions the majority opinion does not address about the application of the new standard. “How much money is too much money?” Roberts wrote. “How long does the probability of bias last?” He also wondered whether large contributions from an affected trade association or a racial or ethnic group, rather than an actual party in a case, would trigger the Caperton rule.

James Sample of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, who celebrated Monday’s ruling as “a narrow decision that is a huge victory for the rule of law,” nonetheless told Mauro that Roberts’s questions “are well-taken and will be addressed by state court judges” without resort to the Constitution except in very rare cases. “This was the ultimate scenario,” Sample said.