Supreme Court Watch: Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 - 01:00

During the week of June 8, 2009, the Supreme Court held in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. that the Due Process Clause requires an elected judge to disqualify herself when one of the parties to a lawsuit had "a significant and 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."

This case arose after a West Virginia jury retuned a $50 million verdict against A.T. Massey Coal Company and its affiliates for committing various business torts against Caperton, the owner of a coal mine in West Virginia.

While post-trial motions in the case were pending, West Virginia held judicial elections. In one of the contests, attorney Brent Benjamin sought to replace Justice Warren McGraw on West Virginia's highest court, the Supreme Court of Appeals. Massey's CEO and chairman Don Blankenship, knowing that the state high court would consider an appeal in Caperton's lawsuit, decided to support Benjamin in the election. Blankenship ultimately provided Benjamin and political organizations that supported him a total of $3 million - according to the Court, more than the total amount that all other Benjamin supporters spent, three times as much as Benjamin's committee spent, and $1 million more than Justice McGraw's and Benjamin's committees spent combined. Benjamin won the closely-divided contest by approximately 50,000 votes.

Before Massey filed its petition for appeal, Caperton sought to disqualify Justice Benjamin. Justice Benjamin denied the motion because he found "no objective information . . . to show that this Justice has a bias for or against any litigant." Thereafter, the state supreme court granted Massey's petition for appeal. In a 3-to-2 decision joined by Justice Benjamin, the court reversed the jury's verdict.

Caperton sought rehearing. In response to motions for disqualification filed by both parties, two of the justices recused themselves, but Justice Benjamin once again declined. After the court granted rehearing, Justice Benjamin, acting as chief justice, selected two judges to replace his recused colleagues. Shortly thereafter, Caperton again asked Justice Benjamin to disqualify himself, but he declined. Once again, the court reversed the jury's verdict in a 3-to-2 decision in which Justice Benjamin joined. After Caperton sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Benjamin issued a further opinion, stating that he had no "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest in this case."

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded in a 5-4 decision. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy held that "[o]n these extreme facts the probability of actual bias rises to an unconstitutional level." Prior decisions, the Court noted, established that the Due Process Clause is offended not only by actual bias, but also "circumstances in which experience teaches that the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge . . . is too high to be constitutionally tolerable." Although "what degree or kind of interest is sufficient to disqualify a judge . . . cannot be defined with precision," an objective test is applied to assess this risk. That test, the Court stressed, does not seek to consider whether the judge is actually biased; instead, it considers whether there is an unconstitutional "probability of actual bias."

Turning to Caperton's lawsuit, the Court held that the Due Process Clause required Justice Benjamin's recusal in light of Blankenship's "significant and disproportionate influence in placing [him] on the case." The Court considered the size of Blankenship's contribution in relation to the total amount contributed to the campaign; the total amount spent on the election; and the apparent effect such contribution had on the outcome of the election. The Court also found critical the temporal relationship between the contributions, the election, and the pendency of the case. "Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause," the Court cautioned, "similar fears of bias can arise when -without the consent of the other parties - a man chooses the judge in his own case."

The Court concluded by emphasizing the "extraordinary situation" presented in this case. Although the Court noted that "extreme cases often test the bounds of established legal principles," it also noted that - as the Court's recusal cases demonstrate - "extreme cases are more likely to cross constitutional limits." The Court also rejected the dissent's prediction that the decision would trigger a flood of disqualification motions, pointing to reforms that states have undertaken to eliminate even the appearance of judicial bias and the muted reaction to the Court's previous recusal decisions. "Application of the constitutional standard implicated in this case," the Court opined, "will thus be confined to rare instances.