The Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion today in Caperton v. Massey and in a 5-4 decision held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Chief Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself from Caperton’s appeal and reversed the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision in Massey’s favor and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the majority "do not question his [Justice Benjamin’s subjective findings of impartiality and propriety. Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias."
But the Court found that the "difficulties of inquiring into actual bias … simply underscore the need for objective rules":
Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge’s recusal, but this is an exceptional case… We conclude that there is a serious risk of actual bias — based on objective and reasonable perceptions — when a person with a personal stake in a particular case has had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent. The inquiry centers on the contribution’s relative size in comparison to the total amount of money contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election, and the apparent effect such contribution had on the outcome of the election.
The Court concluded, based on the application of the principle, that:
… Blankenship’s campaign efforts had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing Justice Benjamin on the case. Blankenship contributed some $3 million to unseat the incumbent and replace him with Benjamin. His contributions eclipsed the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and exceeded by 300% the amount spent by Benjamin’s campaign committee. App. 288a. Caperton claims Blankenship spent $1 million more than the total amount spent by the campaign committees of both candidates combined. Brief for Petitioners 28.
The Court rejected Massey’s argument that ultimately West Virginia voters elected Justice Benjamin to the Court, stating that, "[w]hether Blankenship’s campaign contributions were a necessary and sufficient cause of Benjamin’s victory is not the proper inquiry. Much like determining whether a judge is actually biased, proving what ultimately drives the electorate to choose a particular candidate is a difficult endeavor, not likely to lend itself to a certain conclusion."
The Court also focused on the "temporal relationship between the campaign contributions, the justice election, and the pendency of the case…", meaning the the winner of the election would be on the Court when it reviewed the $50 million verdict:
Although there is no allegation of a quid pro quo agreement, the fact remains that Blankenship’s extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome. 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. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was here a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.
In describing this as "an extraordinary situation where the Constitution requires recusal," the majority opinion also rejected Massey and its amici‘s prediction that finding a constitutional violation in this case would result in various adverse consequences, "ranging from a flood of recusal motions to unnecessary interference with judicial elections."
The Court found that almost every state, including West Virginia, had adopted the American Bar Association’s objective standard that "a judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety," and also noted that the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct required a judge’s recusal in similar circumstances.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissent in which Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined, and Justice Scalia also dissented separately.
I’ll write some more about the decision, but I wanted to provide the opinion right now. For some additional reaction, here is SCOTUSBlog’s initial post and David Stout’s article in The New York Times.