Judges Must Avoid Appearance of Bias

Chuck Mullins, partner at Coxwell & Associates located in Jackson, Hinds County, Mississippi has litigated numerous serious personal injury cases, felony crimes and misdemeanors all over Mississippi. Trial judges in Mississippi are elected and for the most part do a fine job. However, recent events in Mississippi and elsewhere showcase the need for Judges to recuse themsevles to avoid the appearance of “bias”. The following case originated in West Virginia. The Defendant, Massey Energy, and its president, Don Blankenship, had provided huge sums of money to defeat an incumbent West Virginia Supreme Court Justice. The new Justice refused to recuse himself when Massey’s multi million dollar case was before the West Virinia Supreme Court. The new justice voted in favor of Massey Energy. The United States Supreme Court ruled that he should have recused himself:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has ruled that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

By a 5-4 vote in a case from West Virginia, the court said that a judge who remained involved in a lawsuit filed against the company of the most generous supporter of his election deprived the other side of the constitutional right to a fair trial.With multimillion-dollar judicial election campaigns on the rise, the court’s decision Monday could have widespread significance. Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says judges are elected in 39 states and that candidates for the highest state courts have raised more than $168 million since 2000.

The West Virginia case involved more than $3 million spent by the chief executive of Massey Energy Co. to help elect state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin. At the same time, Massey was appealing a verdict, which now totals $82.7 million with interest, in a dispute with a local coal company. Benjamin refused to step aside from the case, despite repeated requests, and was part of a 3-2 decision to overturn the verdict.

The coal company, Harman Mining Co., and its president, Hugh Caperton, took the case to the high court.

“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,” Kennedy said.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens joined Kennedy’s opinion.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent that he shares concerns about maintaining an impartial judiciary. “But I fear that the court’s decision will undermine rather than promote these values,” Roberts said.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Massey rejected assertions that Benjamin owed a debt of gratitude to Blankenship or that Benjamin displayed any bias in his ruling. Benjamin has ruled against Massey at least four times, including in an unanimous refusal to hear the company’s appeal of a $260 million judgment won in another contract dispute.

The judge himself wrote a long opinion explaining his decision to take part in the case.
Kennedy said, “We do not question his subjective findings of impartiality and propriety. Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias.”

But, Kennedy said, the $3 million Blankenship spent to unseat the incumbent justice who was seeking re-election and replace him with Benjamin “had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing Justice Benjamin on the case.”

The dissenters said the court’s inability or unwillingness to lay out clear rules for when judges must step aside will provoke endless lawsuits aimed at forcing judges off cases.
“It is an old cliche, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease,” Roberts said. He wrote that it is not clear that Blankenship’s money even affected the outcome of the election.
“I would give the voters of West Virginia more credit than that,” he said.
Both Scalia and Roberts said that the ruling would end up undermining confidence in the judicial system, not enhancing it as the majority contended.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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