Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision that appeared to be a “no brainer.” The Court considered Caperton et al v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., a case where a party was appealing a Republican Judge’s refusal to recuse himself. The case stemmed from a Judge who received over three million dollars in campaign contributions from the CEO of the company which was a party to the suit. The CEO contributed more than all of the judge’s other campaign contributors combined. He even contributed more than the Judge. The Judge refused to recuse himself from hearing the appeal of a case involving the CEO’s corporation, were the company was appealing a $30 million dollar judgment awarded against it by a jury. In fact, the CEO began contributing to the republican judge’s campaign shortly after the judgment was awarded by the jury. The Judge was ultimately elected Chief Judge of the appellate court and was on the panel assigned to hear the case involving his primary contributor’s corporation (Chief Judges customarily control the assignment of cases). When the recusal motion was filed, the Judge stated that he could be fair and denied the motion. To no one’s surprise, the $30 million dollar judgment was overturned.
The United States Supreme Court considered the facts of the case and reasoned that “under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,” the interest “poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.” The Supreme Court SUSTAINED! the objection to judges who appeared “bought and paid for” and reversed the decision of the state court on the grounds that the recusal motion should have been granted. The Supreme Court’s decision promotes integrity in the Courts and may restore public confidence in due process. This decision was a “no brainer.” But surprisingly, the U.S. Supreme Court decision was 5 to 4 - split mostly along ideological lines.
For years, money has influenced the political process in the United States. Attempts to regulate campaign finance date back to 1867, with the first successful attempts to regulate and enforce campaign finance originating in the 1970s. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972 required candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and campaign expenditures. In 1974 it was amended with the introduction of legal limits on contributions and the creation of the Federal Election Commission. It attempted to restrict the influence of wealthy individuals by limiting individual donations to $1000 and donations by Political Action Committees to $5000. Other major campaign finance regulation was passed in 2002. However, this legislation and all other federal legislation were limited to federal elections.
Even judicial elections in state governments are subject to undue influence. The Judiciary is supposed to be fair, independent and impartial. A fair and impartial trial is universally desired. And as the court stated, “There is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case 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.” Allowing such a practice undermines the fairness, as well as the perception of fairness, of our judiciary. Consider the following example. A person (defendant) is accused of harming a wealthy man and is charged with a crime. The wealthy man finds out the court in which the defendant's case is assigned and begins contributing to the campaign of one of the candidates for that court. The wealthy man’s candidate wins the election and the wealthy man is the winning candidate’s largest campaign contributor. The defendant's case heads to trial with the newly elected judge presiding. The Judge rules against the defendant on several contested issues during the trial. The defendant is convicted and sentenced to the maximum sentence by the newly elected judge.
Very few people would fail to see that there was some conflict of interest in this example mandating a recusal. However, prior to this decision, the test was largely subjective. If the judge thought he could be fair, he could deny the recusal motion. The four Supreme Court justices who dissented in this case- Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito; argued that this case would encourage litigants to challenge the impartiality of Judges and would led to protracted litigation on this "ancillary issue."
The dissent's argument rings hollow. In most federal courts, parties are required to disclose any interested parties to the litigation. Many judges routinely recuse themselves if they own stock in a company which is the subject of a suit. The threshold for conflicts is very low. In federal courts, there has not been an explosion of litigation on the recusal issue. Furthermore, if there exists a conflict of interest, then due process would require that it be litigated or address by the Court. It is not an "ancillary issue." It is essential for due process and fair trials. The perception that the wealthy are afforded more justice is a reality that needs to change. The real reason for the split in this case where the decision seems so obvious is resistance to campaign finance regulation. In a nut shell, resistance to restrictions on campaign financing is resistance to restrictions on corporations. Most of these justices were appointed by the Bushes who were bought and paid for by oil interest and large energy companies. Their opinions and decisions throughout their judicial careers show that they are beholden to large corporations and corporate interests. They look to the "letter of the law" when it furthers corporate interest and the interest of the wealthy. And they feel that the wealthy should be able to influence the political process and even the Courts. It is shameful politics by the dissent...shameful pandering to corporate interests.
Although campaign finance laws have been ineffective to stop the buying of politicians, the Court’s decision may slow the buying of judges and outcomes in courts.