Monday, June 8, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court disqualifies W Va Supreme Court Justice on due process grounds

Today, in an astounding decision -- not because it was unexpected, but because all four "conservative" Justices dissented -- the Supreme Court reversed a West Virginia Supreme Court's decision because one Justice refused to recuse (disqualify) himself. See Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., Case No. 08-22 (U.S., June 8, 2009).

For those who missed the news coverage of this case, Caperton obtained a $50 million judgment against Massey. Massey appealed to the W. Va. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, one Brent Benjamin was challenging an incumbent Justice seeking re-election. Massey Coal's chairman, Don Blankenship, contributed $3 million to Mr. Benjamin's campaign. Mr. Benjamin was successful, and became Justice Benjamin. (Note added June 16: Only $1,000 went directly into Mr. Benjamin's campaign account, the other $2.999 million was spent on advertising on Mr. Benjamin's behalf.)

Caperton moved to disqualify Justice Benjamin, and the Justice refused to recuse himself. The supreme court reversed Caperton's $50 million judgment,on a 3-2 vote. One dissenter, Justice Starcher, wrote:
The majority opinion is morally wrong because it steals more than $60 million dollars from a man who was the victim of a deliberate, illegal scheme to destroy his business. The majority opinion is legally wrong because it uses erroneous legal reasoning to justify an immoral result.
The supreme court vacated its first effort and re-heard the case. Two Justices (including Starcher, J.) disqualified themselves. They were replaced by two trial court judges. The result was the same, 3-2 in favor of Massey. Three months later, Justice Benjamin released a 98-page concurring opinion that attempts to justify his refusal to disqualify himself.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and oral argument was held on March 3, 2009 -- just three months ago. The Court's swing-vote, Justice Kennedy, delivered the opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. I've posted a link to the Court's opinions (Justices Roberts and Scalia filed dissenting opinions), and if you can read this you can read the opinions.

The dissents of Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito are disturbing. While we are seeing a fair amount of conservative hand-wringing over Judge Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, we should not forget that "conservative" judges often side with the government -- except in land use cases, thank goodness. Judge Sotomayer would at least keep the balance when other (non land-use) Constitutional rights are at stake.

Suffice it to say that the Supreme Court's decision in Caperton v. Massey adds weight to the judicial disqualification process throughout the state and federal courts, in its renewed application of the Due Process Clause, in addition to statutory criteria, to support motions to disqualify judges.

No comments: