WASHINGTON — Elected judges must disqualify themselves from cases involving people who spent exceptionally large sums to put them on the bench, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a 5-4 decision.
The decision, the first to say the Constitution's due process clause has a role to play in policing the role of money in judicial elections, ordered the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to recuse himself from a $50 million case against a coal company whose chief executive had spent $3 million to elect him.
Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their judges. Elected judges routinely accept contributions from lawyers and litigants who appear before them, and they seldom disqualify themselves for cases involving donors.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in a decision that split along familiar ideological lines, said the Constitution required disqualification when an interested party's spending had a "disproportionate influence" in a case that was "pending or imminent."
The practice of electing judges is all but unknown in the rest of the world. Federal judges are appointed.
In the West Virginia case, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, the beneficiary of the coal executive's spending, twice joined the majority in 3-2 decisions throwing out the $50 million jury verdict against the company, Massey Energy. Benjamin said there was no objective reason to suggest he could not rule fairly in the case.
"We do not question his subjective findings of impartiality and propriety," Kennedy wrote of Benjamin in Monday's decision, Caperton vs. A.T. Massey Coal Co. "Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias."