I think this comment by Justice John Paul Stevens sums up Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., which was argued today before the Supreme Court:
“The whole point of this case is it [actual bias] has not been recognized. We have never confronted a case as extreme as this before. This fits the standard that Potter Stewart articulated when he said ‘I know it when I see it.’”
And that is what the justices are grappling with.
The issue is whether Hugh Caperton and his companies were denied their right to due process when Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin refused to recuse himself from Massey’s appeal of $50 million jury verdict in Caperton’s favor.
Here are the transcript of the argument and a post from The Wall Street Journal Law Blog, which has an interview with the Journal’s Supreme Court reporter, Jess Bravin, who attended the argument and explains the significance of the justices’ questions and comments. By the way, his discussion of Justice Stevens’ professional background may help to explain the comment referenced above.
The transcript really captures the differences between the parties’ positions. Caperton argues that because actual bias on the part of a judge or justice is impossible to prove, the applicable standard needs to be one that focuses on the appearance of a probability of bias.
Caperton argues that Blankenship’s $3 million contribution to a group that opposed Justice Benjamin’s opponent created the appearance of a probability of bias against Caperton in his case against Massey, which required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.
On the other hand, Massey argues that the appearance of impropriety, without any proof of actual bias, could never raise a constitutional issue, which means that Caperton’s right to due process was not violated by Justice Benjamin’s refusal to recuse himself.
For what it’s worth, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has been the critical fifth vote in several important decisions, said that it seemed to him that litigants have an entitlement to confidence in judges’ decisions under the Due Process Clause.
Massey’s counsel, Andrew Frey, suggested that the justices ask themselves “if you were in Justice Benjamin’s situation, do you really think that you would be incapable of rendering an impartial decision in a case involving Massey? Because if the answer to that is no, if the answer to that is that you would not be incapable of rendering an unbiased decision, then there’s no justification for saying that Justice Benjamin would —”
Caperton’s counsel, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, countered that the appropriate question for the justices was, “[i]f this was going to be the judge in your case, would you think it would be fair and would it be a fair tribunal if the judge in your case was selected with a $3 million subsidy by your opponent?”
The Court’s opinion may depend on which question the justices answer.