(CN) – Judges should recuse themselves from cases in which a party contributed significantly to their campaigns, giving the appearance of bias, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. The justices ruled 5-4 that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin should have stepped aside when asked to overturn a $50 million verdict against a coal company whose owner contributed more than $3 million to help get him elected.
After a jury ruled against A.T. Massey Coal Co., its chairman and principal officer, Don Blankenship, supported Benjamin for the 2004 judicial elections. Benjamin won by less than 50,000 votes.
The appeal came before the state high court, and Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case. The court overturned the $50 million verdict on a 3-2 vote.
The plaintiffs argued that the campaign contributions placed an obligation on Benjamin to tip the verdict in the coal company’s favor.
Massey Coal argued that although Blankenship’s support was significant, Benjamin’s election was ultimately decided by voters, not the coal company.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy noted the difficulty of asking a judge to analyze his own bias. For this reason, the due process clause has objective standards that do not require proof of actual bias, Kennedy explained.
“[T]here is a serious risk of actual bias – based on objective and reasonable perceptions – 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 imminent or pending,” Kennedy wrote.
The majority noted that Blankenship’s $3 million contribution “eclipsed the total amount spent by Benjamin supporters and exceeded by 300 percent the amount spent by Benjamin’s campaign committee.”
This, coupled with the timing of Blankenship’s contributions, created a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Benjamin’s recusal, the justices ruled.
The majority emphasized that this particular case presented an “extraordinary situation,” rejecting fears that the ruling would trigger a “flood of recusal motions.”
In dissent, Chief Justice Roberts argued that the “probability of bias” is too vague a reason for recusal. Probability “cannot be defined in any way” and “provides no guidance to judges and litigants about when recusal will be constitutionally required,” Roberts wrote.
“The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case,” he added.
“Today’s ruling upholds the belief that judges should be fair and impartial,” said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “This is a stark reminder of the lengths Big Coal will go to circumvent the law. Already our air, water and communities are being sacrificed to devastating mining, dirty coal plants, and coal ash impoundments — all to pad Big Coal’s pockets.”
The environmental group identified Massey Coal as “the single biggest practitioner of devastating mountaintop removal coal mining.” Last year, the coal company had to pay $20 million for more than 4,600 Clean Water Act violations at its Appalachian mining facilities, according to the Sierra Club’s press statement.
Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined the dissenting opinion.