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United States: Judge’s Recusual Required Where Campaign Contributions Create Probable Bias

(June 15, 2009) On June 8, 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires an elected state judge to recuse himself from a case when a party in the case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing him on the court.

A West Virginia jury held respondent A.T. Massey Coal Company liable for $50 million in damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and other torts against petitioner Hugh Caperton and others. Knowing that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals would consider the appeal, Massey's chairman donated $3 million to the campaign of candidate Brent Benjamin in an election for a vacancy on that court. Benjamin won the election. Caperton moved to disqualify Benjamin from the case or to have him recuse himself. Benjamin remained on the case, and the Court ruled 3-2 in Massey's favor, with Benjamin in the majority. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Caperton's petition to hear the case.

The Supreme Court ruled that under the extraordinary circumstances of this case, where a party's donations had a significant and disproportionate outcome on the election, and there was a close temporal relationship between the campaign contributions, the election, and the pending appeal, the probability of bias rose to a level that violated the due process clause. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in favor of Massey and remanded the case for further proceedings. (Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., No. 08-22 (June 8, 2009), available at