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Supreme Court: Judges must step aside when there's perception of bias

The 5-to-4 decision, involving a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court, establishes a broad, new constitutional standard.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 2009


The US Supreme Court has established a broad, new constitutional standard requiring judges to step aside in cases involving a perceived probability of judicial bias.

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The 5-to-4 decision was announced on Monday in a case involving a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Justice Brent Benjamin had refused to step aside in a case involving a company that spent $3 million to help defeat an incumbent justice, whose seat was filled by Justice Benjamin.

The Supreme Court ruled that Benjamin violated the due process rights of the litigants before the West Virginia high court when he declined to recuse himself in that case.

The majority justices on the US high court viewed the company's independent campaign expenditure as a significant factor in Benjamin's electoral success. They concluded the effort created a perception of a "probability of actual bias" when the company later appeared before Benjamin and the other justices.

"Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when – without the consent of the other parties – a man chooses the judge in his own cause," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts warned that the decision unleashes an ill-defined standard upon America's judiciary, requiring judges to step aside whenever someone perceives a "probability of bias."

"This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be," the chief justice said. "The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case."

The case, Caperton v. Massey Coal Company, was being closely followed because it offered the justices the opportunity to address the issue of when judges must step aside and decline to hear a case because of potential or perceived conflicts of interest.

It arises at a time when many judicial elections in the United States are being swamped with millions of dollars in special-interest campaign money that some analysts say threatens to undercut public confidence in the judiciary.

The case is well known for another reason. It was the real-life inspiration for John Grisham's bestselling 2008 legal thriller, "The Appeal."

Under the federal judicial system and in some states, judges are appointed and serve for life. But in 39 states, judges must run for office and stand for election to retain their seat.

During such elections, judicial candidates can accept financial contributions from the public, including parties that might later appear before them as lawyers, plaintiffs, or defendants. In addition, sitting judges who have ruled in controversial cases may find themselves targeted by groups, companies, or individuals seeking their removal from the bench.

All those issues play a role in the Caperton case.

The litigation began amid a heated, long-running dispute between Hugh Caperton, a mining executive, and Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of the Massey Coal Co.

Mr. Caperton says Mr. Blankenship drove his mining business into bankruptcy through questionable behind-the-scenes dealings. The dispute went to court, where a jury awarded Caperton $50 million for illegal contract interference and fraud.