Supreme Court rules 5-4 that taking too much money from a litigant can disqualify a judge
In prior log entries we have discussed the Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company brouhaha. Several small coal companies sued Massey, the state's largest, claiming that its owner had put them out of business through illegal fraud. They won a verdict in the amount of $50 million dollars. Massey then counted noses on the West Virginia Supreme Court, and contributed 3 million dollars to the campaign to replace one of the sitting justices with a candidate he favored. That candidate won and became the deciding vote in a 3-2 decision overturning the verdict against Massey. Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court held 5-4 that the small coal companies had been denied due process.
Sadly, "justice for sale" has become commonplace in many state courts, where entities like Massey and the Chamber of Commerce have boasted of their success in replacing sitting judges with pro-business candidates through multi-million dollar campaigns. In Michigan, the Chamber completely bankrupted the races for Michigan Supreme Court by contributing tens of millions of dollars to what had once been relatively professional, non-partisan races.
This week, the Supreme Court said that at least the tip of this ice berg is unacceptable. It held that where a contribution was likely to have a "disproportionate influence" on a case that was "pending or imminent," the litigants involved have been denied a fair tribunal and due process. That will not address the more serious underlying problem of special interest groups hand-selecting a partisan candidate, whom they support with disproportionate contributions. Nevertheless, it at least throws a little cold water on the most egregious attempts to buy a judge.
In the ultimate Orwellian irony, the four Republican extremists on the Court, Roberts, Aledo, Thomas and Scalia criticized the decision as one that "will erode public confidence in the judiciary." You read that right: they claim that disqualifying a judge who has accepted too much campaign money from a litigant in a pending case is the act that will erode public confidence: refusing to disqualify the judge would boost confidence! There is no intellectual honesty here. These people will use any rationalization they can come up with to protect vested money interests.