Court Rules Judges Must Avoid Appearance Of Bias

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that elected judges must step aside in cases involving large campaign contributions from interested parties to avoid the appearance of bias, a decision that could have implications in 39 states where voters choose judges.

In a 5-4 vote, the court decided that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin deprived Harman Mining Co. of the right to a fair trial because he participated in a case involving a major contributor to his campaign.

Harman executives had complained that there was the appearance of bias because the chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. contributed $3 million to Benjamin's election campaign at the same time Massey was appealing a multimillion-dollar jury verdict -- now totaling $82.7 million -- against Harman.

Benjamin refused to recuse himself and voted with the 3-2 majority to overturn the verdict. Harman appealed to the Supreme Court.

The high court's more liberal justices sided with Harman.

Justice Anthony Kennedy labeled the facts of the case "extreme" because the $3 million that Massey CEO Don Blankenship contributed to unseat the court's incumbent and support Benjamin's campaign had a "significant and disproportionate influence" in putting Benjamin on the case.

"Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when -- without the consent of the other parties -- a man chooses the judge in his own cause," Kennedy wrote for the majority.

But he also noted that not every campaign contribution requires a judge's recusal.

The nonpartisan group Justice at Stake hailed the decision as a victory.

"The Supreme Court said, 'Enough is enough.' Today's ruling is a critical first step. But states that elect judges must get to work now, to keep campaign cash out of our courts of law," Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement on the group's Web site.

Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says that at least some judges are elected in 39 states, and that many allow the individual judge to decide if he or she should be recused from a case. It also says judicial candidates have raised more than $168 million since 2000.

"Special-interest spending on judicial elections has soared since the 1990s, leading some to say justice is now 'for sale,' " the group said in a review of the West Virginia case.

The Supreme Court also issued decisions in several other cases:

  • The justices ruled unanimously that the Iraqi government cannot be sued for actions that took place under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Foreign governments are immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts, but federal law strips that protection from countries that support terrorism. Under Saddam, Iraq was considered a state sponsor of terrorism.

    • But the court agreed with Iraq's assertion that the U.S.-led invasion that deposed Saddam and a federal law that was enacted in 2003 restored the country's immunity to lawsuits.

  • The court turned down a challenge to the Pentagon policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, granting a request by the Obama administration to maintain the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" directive.

    • The justices refused to hear an appeal from former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was dismissed under the military policy. A federal appeals court in Boston earlier threw out a lawsuit filed by Pietrangelo and 11 other veterans, but Pietrangelo asked the high court to rule that the policy is unconstitutional.

  • The court refused to hear an appeal from two former top executives of Tyco International that challenges their convictions for fraud and larceny involving more than $100 million in bonuses. The justices' action ends the effort by Tyco's former CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski and former CFO Mark Swartz to overturn their convictions. They are serving prison terms of between eight and 25 years for taking unauthorized pay.

    • The former executives maintained they were denied access to certain documents that would have helped persuade the jury of their innocence.