Stop and ask the first nine people you pass on the street if it would be fair for a judge to decide the case of someone who contributed $3 million to the judge’s campaign and chances are, all nine people will tell you that it would be unfair. But at the U.S. Supreme Court, that very issue garnered the slimmest 5-4 majority decision that the judge in question should have recused himself.
The case was Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. Here is the Court’s opinion. If you don’t like reading judicial opinions, then read John Grisham’s The Appeal , which was based on the case. The Court’s majority opinion reached the correct result and I agree with this observation by the New York Times:
Indeed, the only truly alarming thing about Monday’s decision was that it was not unanimous. The case drew an unusual array of friend-of-court briefs from across the political spectrum, and such an extreme case about an ethical matter that should transcend ideology should have united all nine justices.
The purpose of our nation’s justice system is to right the wrongs. The majority opinion did that, as noted by the Los Angeles Times:
In ruling that a justice on West Virginia’s highest court should have recused himself from a case involving a campaign benefactor, the U.S. Supreme Court has righted an egregious wrong. More important, the 5-4 decision will encourage judges to avoid both the appearance and the reality of conflicts of interest.
It is disturbing that Chief Justice Roberts and three other hard line conservatives would sanction a clear wrong. The dissent raises the possibility of cases being flooded with motions for recusal. But isn’t that better than judicial elections being flooded with special interest cash from individuals and groups who know that the Supreme Court will allow an appellate judge to decide the case of a party who contributed millions to the judge’s campaign? Plus, I’m not buying the dissent’s argument. How many motions for recusal will be filed based on campaign contributions measured in the thousands or less? Especially since the majority opinion makes clear that recusal would not be required in most instances.
The case hits close to home in Mississippi given the recent judicial bribery scandal. In February a Mississippi Bar Task Force established to make recommendation to strengthen public confidence in the legal system issued this report that concluded that money was the root of public mistrust in the legal system. With respect to Mississippi Supreme Court elections the task force stated:
For some twenty years each election has seen huge amounts of money spent, money largely contributed by donors who have a direct stake in the outcome of judicial decisions.
The Task Force recommended that future justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court should be appointed in order to address this problem. The Task Force is correct, as is the majority’s opinion in Caperton.