WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that West Virginia’s Chief Justice should have stepped down from a case involving his campaign’s biggest financial supporter.
The 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy is a victory for groups interested in curbing the influence of money on judicial elections. "In all the circumstances of this case, due process requires recusal," Kennedy wrote.
This case closely resembles the plotline authored by novelist John Grisham in his 2008 book "The Appeal."
Kennedy's opinion was joined by the court's more liberal justices.
"There is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent," Kennedy concluded.
The case examined Justice Brent Benjamin's decision not to recuse himself from a $50 million lawsuit involving a man who helped get him elected to the bench. The losing side in the West Virginia mining case before Benjamin argued he should have stepped aside for his "probability of bias" in the case, which involved Massey Coal.
The 527 organization Massey's CEO formed spent $3 million in ads to help Benjamin's election.
The Supreme Court had previously only recognized the need for recusals when judges have a personal financial interest or some other closely held personal connection to a case. Monday's opinion expands that reach.
The case also highlighted the concerns some have in curbing the influence of money in state judicial races. 39 states hold elections to determine who presides over their courtrooms.
In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the Court's decision will undermine not promote an independent judiciary. His concern is that "probability of bias" is undefinable and will "inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be."
Also today, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Iraqi government who will now be shielded from lawsuits dating back to the Saddam Hussein regime. The decision ends multi-million dollar lawsuits from people who were tortured in Iraq during the 1990's. One of the plaintiffs was CBS reporter Bob Simon who was taken hostage during the First Gulf War.
The decision was authored by Justice Antonin Scalia who wrote that an emergency law passed by Congress at the start of the Second Gulf War exempted Iraq from the lawsuits. "When the President exercised his authority to make inapplicable with respect to Iraq all provisions of law that apply to countries that have supported terrorism, the exception to foreign sovereign immunity for state sponsors of terrorism became inoperative as against Iraq," Scalia wrote.