Monday, June 8, 2009

U.S.S.Ct. rules in case about W. Virginia Justice's conflict of interest

The United States Supreme Court today announced its holding that "the Constitution can require an elected judge to step aside in a particular case based on campaign spending in state judicial races." This is not an issue that arises only in rural states, though the case that brought the issue to the Court was out of West Virginia, which has recently looked like one big small town in terms of the state's movers and shakers (see posts here and here).

In the West Virginia Supreme Court, energy giant Massey Coal Compnay had prevailed over several smaller mining concerns. Yet Massey had been a major contributor to the campaign of Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin, who had twice joined the majority in 3-to-2 decisions to throw out the $50 million jury verdict against Massey. In a series of decisions rejecting disqualification motions, Justice Benjamin had maintained that "no objective reason" suggested his inability to rule fairly in the case.

Writing for the majority in Monday's decision, Justice Kennedy disagreed, noting “a serious, objective risk of actual bias. Still, the majority did "not question his subjective findings of impartiality and propriety" nor "determine whether there was actual bias.”

I've written earlier posts about the case here and here. Adam Liptak's report about the Supreme Court decision is here.

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