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Court: Judges must avoid appearance of bias

June 08, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

By a 5-4 vote in a case from West Virginia, the court said that a judge who remained involved in a lawsuit filed against the company of the most generous supporter of his election deprived the other side of the constitutional right to a fair trial.

"Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when -- without the consent of the other parties -- a man chooses the judge in his own cause," Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court.

With multimillion-dollar judicial election campaigns on the rise, the court's decision Monday could have widespread significance. Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says judges are elected in 39 states and that candidates for the highest state courts have raised more than $168 million since 2000.

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The West Virginia case involved more than $3 million spent by the chief executive of Massey Energy Co. to help elect state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin. At the same time, Massey was appealing a verdict, which now totals $82.7 million with interest, in a dispute with a local coal company. Benjamin refused to step aside from the case, despite repeated requests, and was part of a 3-2 decision to overturn the verdict.

The coal company, Harman Mining Co., and its president, Hugh Caperton, took the case to the high court.

"Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal, but this is an exceptional case," Kennedy said.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens joined Kennedy's opinion.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent that he shares concerns about maintaining an impartial judiciary. "But I fear that the court's decision will undermine rather than promote these values," Roberts said.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented.

Massey rejected assertions that Benjamin owed a debt of gratitude to Blankenship or that Benjamin displayed any bias in his ruling. Benjamin has ruled against Massey at least four times, including in an unanimous refusal to hear the company's appeal of a $260 million judgment won in another contract dispute.

The judge himself wrote a long opinion explaining his decision to take part in the case.

Kennedy said, "We do not question his subjective findings of impartiality and propriety. Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias."

But, Kennedy said, the $3 million Blankenship spent to unseat the incumbent justice who was seeking re-election and replace him with Benjamin "had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing Justice Benjamin on the case."

The dissenters said the court's inability or unwillingness to lay out clear rules for when judges must step aside will provoke endless lawsuits aimed at forcing judges off cases.

"It is an old cliche, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease," Roberts said. He wrote that it is not clear that Blankenship's money even affected the outcome of the election.

"I would give the voters of West Virginia more credit than that," he said.

Both Scalia and Roberts said that the ruling would end up undermining confidence in the judicial system, not enhancing it as the majority contended.

Challenge to 'don't ask, don't tell turned down



The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a challenge to the Pentagon policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, granting an Obama administration request to maintain the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" directive.

The court said it will not hear an appeal from former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was dismissed under the military's policy.

The federal appeals court in Boston earlier threw out a lawsuit filed by Pietrangelo and 11 other veterans. He was the only member of that group who asked the high court to rule that the policy is unconstitutional. In 1993, President Bill Clinton established the policy as a compromise after strong resistance from the military and Congress toward allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.

In court papers, the administration said the appeals court ruled correctly in this case when it found that "don't ask, don't tell" is "rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman referred requests for comment to the Justice Department, but said the military policy "implements the law."

"The law requires the (Defense) Department to separate from the armed services members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts; state they are homosexual or bisexual; or marry or attempt to marry a person of the same biological sex," Whitman said in a statement.

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