Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc, 129 S. Ct. 2252 (2009)

Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc, 129 S. Ct. 2252 (2009)

Facts—A West Virginia jury found Massey Coal liable for $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. West Virginia held an election for the State Supreme Court of Appeals, which would hear the case on appeal. Massey’s chairman, Don Blankenship, funneled $3 million to the campaign of Brent Benjamin, who was challenging an incumbent on that court. After Benjamin won, he refused to disqualify himself from the Massey case, and the court reversed the judgment by a 3 to 2 vote.

Question—Did Justice Benjamin’s refusal to recuse himself violate due process?


ReasonsJ. Kennedy (5–4). Blankenship’s contributions constituted more than that of all of Benjamin’s other supporters combined, and two-thirds of West Virginians doubted his impartiality. Due process requires a “fair trial in a fair tribunal.” Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927), ruled that a judge must recuse himself when he has “a direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest” in a case, and decided that a mayor-judge could not decide on a case in which he would only get paid in the event of a guilty verdict. Ward v. Monroeville, 409

U.S. 57 (1972), made a similar decision in a case where fines went to a town’s general fisc. Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813 (1986), further disquali- fied a judge from participating in a case involving a punitive damage case almost identical to one he had filed. Lavoie stressed the need for an objective component in the recusal decision. Other decisions had disqualified judges who had participated in earlier proceedings. In deciding to recuse himself, Benjamin had looked into his own subjective feelings and found no actual bias, but objective standards “do not require proof of actual bias.” The question is whether “‘under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,’ the interest ‘poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.’” Not every campaign contribution will carry such a risk, but the donations involved in this case are extraordinary. Moreover, Blankenship could have reasonably foreseen that the new justice would hear this case. The Court must be especially wary when “a man chooses the judge in his own case.” Recusal was necessary in order to preserve “the integrity of the judiciary and the rule of law.”

C.J. Roberts, dissenting. Past cases have focused on cases where judges have had “a financial interest in the outcome of the case” or when a judge is trying a defendant for certain criminal contempts. The Court’s “probability of bias” standard in this case “cannot be defined in any limited way.” Roberts cites forty unanswered questions that the case raises and suggests that “the Court’s inability to formulate a ‘judicially discernible and manageable standard’ strongly counsels against the recognition of a novel constitutional right.” The majority’s focus on the extreme nature of this case is “so much whistling past the graveyard.” The amount of Blankenship’s direct contribution to the campaign was minimal, and there is no way to know whether his contributions made the difference. In any case, the majority’s “cure is worse than the disease.”

J. Scalia, dissenting, argues that the decision will create “vast uncertainty,” and will further erode public confidence in the law. The Court is on a misdirected and “quixotic quest to right all wrongs and repair all imperfections through the Constitution.”

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