Amici line up in support of petitioner in W.VA recusal case

The Supreme Court is asking whether a judge’s refusal to recuse himself from a case involving his biggest campaign contributor violated the Due Process Clause. And a whole lot of people are answering “yes.”

This week amicus briefs in support of the petitioner in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co were due, and a host of groups – including coalitions of judges and former judges, the American Bar Association and the American Association for Justice – are all urging the Court to set clear recusal standards that would prevent situations like the one that happened in a multi-million dollar West Virginia appeal.

benjaminThe case stems from a $50 million verdict against Massey Coal. The company’s CEO contributed $3 million to the election campaign of West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin while the company was preparing to appeal the verdict. The contribution was more than half the total amount spent on the campaign.

Benjamin won a seat on the court, but rejected a motion to recuse himself from considering the company’s appeal, despite the hefty campaign contributions made be the company’s CEO. He was later the deciding vote in the court’s 3-2 decision overturning the verdict against the company.

One amicus brief filed this week by 27 former state high could chief justices and judges – including a former chief judge from West Virginia – urged the court to require recusal. “Amici have recused from cases based on the appearance of impropriety, both on motion and sua sponte, even though they believed they could judge fairly,” the judges argue in the brief. “Recusal in such cases is an essential prophylactic to preserve the due process rights of the litigants. It is also an important means of preserving public confidence in the judiciary.”

In another brief, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, and the Reform Institute argue: “The $3 million in expenditures; the fact that those expenditures represented more than all other financial support for Justice Benjamin combined; the sole interested source of those funds; the timing of the expenditures; and the other facts of this case are so egregious-by today’s standards at least-that they offer the Court the ideal opportunity to reinforce one of the most fundamental rights in any system based on the rule of law: the right to a fair hearing before an impartial arbiter.”

In it’s brief, the AAJ urged the Court to adopt “a due-process requirement of recusal when great financial resources, well beyond the scope of legislated limits, are contributed by those involved in a pending matter that the candidate may be called upon to decide if elected.”

The Conference of Chief Justices, a group comprised of the chief justices and chief judges of the highest courts of each state, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories, stipulated that its amicus brief was in support of neither party. Still, the group said that recusal is necessary in conflict-of-interest cases to ensure Due Process. “[U]nder certain circumstances, the Constitution may require the disqualification of a judge in a particular matter because of extraordinarily out-of-line campaign support from a source that has a substantial stake in the proceedings,” the Conference’s brief argued.

Amicus briefs in support of petitioner Massey Coal are due later this month.


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