Monday, June 8, 2009

Supreme Court: Judges Failure to Recuse Himself Violated Due Process

In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. (No. 08–22A) a divided United States Supreme Court held today [here] that it violated due process for a Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to deny a recusal motion when a large percentage of the Justice's campaign contributions originated from a party to the proceeding.

Question Presented: "The question presented is whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated when one of the justices in the majority denied a recusal motion."


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 witha personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the caseby raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent. The inquirycenters on the contribution’s relative size in comparison tothe total amount of money contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election, and the apparenteffect such contribution had on the outcome of the election.


Due process "may sometimes bar trial by judges who have no actual bias and who would do their very bestto weigh the scales of justice equally between contending parties." Murchison, 349 U. S., at 136. The failure to consider objective standards requiring recusal is not consistent with the imperatives of due process. We find that Blankenship’s significant and disproportionate influence—coupled with the temporal relationship between the election and the pending case—"‘"offer a possible temptationto the average . . . judge to . . . lead him not to hold thebalance nice, clear and true."’" Lavoie, 475 U. S., at 825 (quoting Monroeville, 409 U. S., at 60, in turn quoting Tumey, 273 U. S., at 532). On these extreme facts the probability of actual bias rises to an unconstitutional level.


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