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Court: Judges Must Avoid Appearance Of Bias

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And first this hour, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling today in a major case that could affect elections for judges across the country. The court said elected judges are barred from participating in cases involving disproportionately large financial players in their campaigns. The five-to-four ruling comes at a time when spending on judicial elections is increasing.

NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg has our story.

NINA TOTENBERG: Thirty-nine states elect some or all of their judges. So, it's a very big deal when the Supreme Court rules for the first time that the Constitution, in some cases, requires a judge to step down because of money that supported his or her election. And that's exactly what the Supreme Court did today. The case, as the court noted, is an extreme one. It was brought by Hugh Caperton, the owner of a small West Virginia mining company, who claims he was illegally run out of business by the Massey Coal Company, the fourth largest in the nation.

A West Virginia jury agreed and ordered Massey Coal to pay Caperton $50 million in damages. With the case pending before the State Supreme Court, Massey's CEO spent three million dollars to help elect a lawyer named Brent Benjamin(ph) to that court and to defeat a sitting justice. That was more than all the other contributions and spending for Benjamin combined. And when Caperton versus Massey came before the state Supreme Court, the new justice refused three times to recuse himself, repeatedly casting the deciding vote to reverse the jury's award.

Caperton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that he'd been denied his constitutional right to due process of law before a fair and impartial tribunal. And today, the Supreme Court agreed by a five-to-four vote. Hugh Caperton got the news when he checked the Supreme Court's Web site this morning.

Mr. HUGH CAPERTON (President, Harman Mining Corporation): We jumped up and down and cried. We're just so excited. We're really, really happy.

TOTENBERG: The case will not go back to the West Virginia Supreme Court for reconsideration without Justice Benjamin participating. Massey Coal today issued a statement declaring that it still expects to win. But the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling could leave deep track marks in the American system of justice. Writing for the five member court majority today, Justice Anthony Kennedy sought to minimize the impact, saying that not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal.

But he said this case did. We conclude, he said, that there is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on a case, by raising funds or directing the campaign, at a time when the case was pending or imminent. There's no way to know whether Justice Benjamin was actually biased the court said. But the temptations to shade are inescapably there and under the code of judicial conduct legitimate fears arise when, in effect, a man chooses his own judge.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the principle to stand for himself and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito. The court's decision, he said, will lead to a flood of similar allegations with no clear rule to guide the lower courts. And he listed 40 questions that he said were unresolved by today's ruling, including how much money is too much. How do we determine what's disproportionate? What if the case involves a social or ideological issue rather than a financial one? Must a judge recuse himself, for example, if he got disproportionate support from pro-life or pro-choice groups?

Former Texas Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Conference of Chief Justices, said his organization is pleased that the Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand but left the states with flexibility.

Mr. TOM PHILLIPS (Former Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court): The court has certainly invited the states to explore whether more concrete rules on the state level, that would exceed that due process for, are needed.

TOTENBERG: James Sample, a judicial elections expert at the Brennan Center agreed that the code of judicial conduct needs more teeth.

Mr. JAMES SAMPLE (Judicial Elections Expert, Brennan Center): It's an indication to the states that the code and the standards need to have some enforcement mechanisms that are in fact objective.

TOTENBERG: The American Bar Association model code of judicial conduct recommends that the states require a judge to recuse himself if his campaign has benefited beyond a set amount from a litigant or a lawyer. While most states have adopted other parts of the model code, so far, not one state has put in place a campaign contribution limit that would automatically trigger recusal.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.