Elections and Judicial Integrity

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?

Tags: Judiciary, SCOTUS (all tags)

Comments

13 Comments

Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

Heard a report of this on NPR this morning. How bizarre that this was a close decision in the Supreme Court! Scalia is the worst Justice ever, and along with his teratomatous parasitic twin Clarence and his clone the Chief Justice, we really dodged a deadly bullet when we got a Democrat in the White House!!!!  

by QTG 2009-06-09 04:06AM | 0 recs
Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

Don't a lot of us deal with this same issue every day? It's called Conflict of Interest or, more often, Apparent Conflict of Interest. If it looks and smells bad, it probably is. There's no formula, no check list, no magic cut off point for donations. Sometimes the best question to ask in determining whether it's a conflict: how would it look on the 6 o'clock news?

If John Q. Public can deal with it, so can judges.

by Bob Miller 2009-06-09 04:11AM | 0 recs
Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

The real problem, which is probably unsolvable given current public sentiment, is that we elect judges at all.  I hate the fact that a judge may hesitate to go against public opinion in a high profile criminal case, even if the law says he or she should, because it could cost the next election.

I think all judges should be appointed, but for specific terms - including the Supreme Court where I think a 20 year term would make more sense than lifetime.

I also think Supreme Court decisions should be unanimous or at least super majority.  Whether the 5th vote is liberal or conservative, I don't think it's good for the country for major decisions to constantly be switching around based on one vote.  If a group of highly trained, highly qualified judges can't come to a consensus, they probably should leave well enough alone and let the current precedents stand.

by LanceS 2009-06-09 04:45AM | 0 recs
I agree on judicial elections

Those should be abolished. I like Iowa's system, where judges are appointed but there are commissions who provide input on the nominees before the governor appoints, and there are occasional retention votes.

I am fine with lifetime appointments, as long as there is some impeachment procedure or retention vote to allow the removal of judges who are not competently doing their jobs.

I automatically vote to retain every judge on every ballot unless an attorney friend has told me that judge has an awful reputation. I think that's happened only one or twice in all the elections I've voted in.

by desmoinesdem 2009-06-09 05:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

I agree that judges should be appointed rather than elected.

I don't like "lifetime appointments" as they currently stand, but I would be OK with permanent appointments that last until the justice reaches 75 years of age (current justices excluded).

Finally, I don't think requiring unanimity for SCOTUS would be good, but I do support the supermajority idea - 6 out of 9.

by Obamaphile 2009-06-09 01:53PM | 0 recs
I don't follow the SCOTUS closely

but my husband does, and his take is that Robers/Scalia/Thomas/Alito group often hide behind the "unadministrable standard" as an excuse for not admitting the obvious.

Just glancing at local media coverage of this controversy, it's obvious that the judge who didn't recuse himself did tarnish the image of the judiciary as a whole. This was a high-profile case, and the conflict of interest was obvious. Roberts cannot seriously believe that large numbers of Americans would be more disappointed to learn that the Supreme Court ruled a judge in such an extreme case should recuse himself.

If the ACLU rather than some industry person had spent $3 million to elect a judge who later provided the deciding vote in this case, I think Roberts would be singing a different tune.

by desmoinesdem 2009-06-09 04:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Roberts' Tune

 And I'd probably be singing in a different key, to be honest. Which is precisely why the decision (and the standard it sets) is a very good and obviously just idea....

by QTG 2009-06-09 05:10AM | 0 recs
would you really?

I think it's pretty obvious that any judge should step aside if a major donor (of whatever political stripe) appears before the court  as a litigant.

Roberts has made up some theoretical damage that could be done to the judiciary's image as an excuse for not recognizing the tremendous damage that has demonstrably occurred in this case.

by desmoinesdem 2009-06-09 05:15AM | 0 recs
Re: would you really?

I m the poster child for taking a stand based on where I sit. I also tend to take both refuge and glee in "payback". It's an emotional problem, where I tend to see justice in the scoreboard, and I can actually make an argument that many years of a particular kind of injustice results in changes to the landscape which requires remedies which aren't necessarily 'fair' if viewed out of context. For instance, I see logic in reparations for 400+ years of racial injustice far beyond what affirmative action can ever provide....

More to your general point, what seems obviously right about this decision is not so obvious to a powerful bunch of justices - why wasn't this obvious result UNANIMOUS? It leaves me shaking at the prospect another Republican President at this time would have meant....

by QTG 2009-06-09 05:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

What is bizarre is the "strict constructionist" justices using an argument about process.

If the constitution requires a certain course of action (the position of the majority) then whether this action is easy to carry out or not is irrelevant. The court is supposed to base decisions on the law, not how it is administered.

What this ruling shows (again) is that the conservative justices will make up any reasons, ex post facto, to justify their unyielding support for the status quo and big business.

by rdf 2009-06-09 05:30AM | 0 recs
Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

Some people might be baffled as to why a case like this one happens to break down precisely on liberal/conservative lines.  Professor Rick Pildes has an interesting explanation.

by Steve M 2009-06-09 05:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Elections and Judicial Integrity

I think everyone, almost, would agree that right result was reached in this case. I don't know why anyone would think it is OK for the legislative branch to deal in issue for which they have accepted anything from a lobbying group. Shouldn't the same rationale apply to legislators, too?

by bleahey 2009-06-09 06:57AM | 0 recs
How dare the majority block a 1600% return!


This was a clear cut case of the radical left majority on the court jealously knocking down one of America's fine entrepreneurs.

We should be praising a businessman who can get a $50 million payback on a $3 million investment.

The bright line rule should be based on ROI. If there isn't at least a 30% annual rate of return, then the case is a waste of time and the judge involved should recuse.

by Ottnott 2009-06-09 09:47AM | 0 recs

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