Thursday 11 June 2009
Acting West Virginia Chief Justice Brent Benjamin. (Photo: AP)
Elected judges in the United States got a warning this week about money, politics and the law. The Supreme Court ruled that a huge campaign donation can be reason enough not to judge a case involving the donor.
Thirty-nine of the fifty states elect at least some of their judges. Terms can last from two to twelve years. Experts say Japan and Switzerland are the only other countries that hold some kind of judicial elections.
In many states, elections for judges are increasingly competitive. The Justice at Stake Campaign says candidates raised one hundred sixty-eight million dollars between two thousand and two thousand seven. The group says that was double the amount raised in the nineteen nineties.
Critics say the situation threatens the fairness of state courts. It may create the appearance that judges are selling their influence.
The Supreme Court ruled on a vote by a judge elected to West Virginia's high court five years ago. Justice Brent Benjamin - now chief justice - voted to overturn a fifty million dollar judgment against the Massey Coal Company.
Massey's chairman had spent $3 million to help elect him to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. That was after the company lost a jury trial over a business dispute.
Justice Benjamin refused to remove himself from Massey's appeal and cast the deciding vote. The reason he gave for not recusing himself was that there was no financial gain for him in making his decision. The donations, however, represented about sixty percent of all his campaign money.
The United States Supreme Court found that the "extreme facts" of the case raised the probability of bias to an unconstitutional level. Not every campaign gift requires a judge's recusal, the court said, "but this is an exceptional case."
Yet the nine justices were narrowly divided in their opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts was one of four dissenters. He said the court provided no guidance about when recusal will be constitutionally required. This, he said, will lead to an increase in claims that judges are biased, "however groundless those charges may be."
The American Bar Association's Committee on Judicial Independence is working on guidelines for when judges should recuse themselves. Committee chairman William Weisenberg says the lawyers group is for greater use of merit-based selections. This is where a committee nominates candidates to the state governor for appointment.