Elections and Judicial Integrity
by Jonathan Singer, Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 03:57:02 AM EDT
Yesterday, the Supreme Court delivered a 5-4 decision in Caperton v. Massey that a judge must recuse himself from hearing a case where one of the parties to the case contributed a significant amount of money towards electing the judge -- significant both in its size and in relation to all of the money spent on the judge's behalf.
For both the majority and the dissenters, this case was about judicial integrity. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy (whose Court this appears to be these days), held that "there 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 pending or imminent." In the case at hand, one of the parties spent $3 million in independent expenditures to help elect the swing Justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court, whose opinion in the 3-2 case before the panel overturned a $50 million verdict against the company the litigant ran. When such a situation is allowed, Due Process is denied and the image of an impartial judiciary is wounded.
Chief Justice John Roberts, leading the four dissenting Justices, also believed that this case presented an issue of judicial integrity. Indeed, he began his dissenting opinion, "I, of course, share the majority's sincere concerns about the need to maintain a fair, independent, and impartial judiciary--and one that appears to be such." And yet, the Chief Justice continued, "I fear that the Court's decision will undermine rather than promote these values." Specifically, Roberts -- joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito -- stated that he feared an unadministrable standard like the one laid out by the Court, in which there is no bright line rule determining when an elected judge must recuse himself from a case in which one of his chief supporters is a litigant, will actually whittle away at the image of an impartial judiciary.
But I would throw this question out to the readers here at MyDD: What hurts this image of the judiciary more -- judges opting not to recuse themselves where their major supporters are appearing before their courts, or an attempt (even if an imperfect one) to address the reasonably perceived problem stemming from the apparent nexus between campaign expenditures and judicial decisions?