Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co

In Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.,(2009) 556 U.S. 868, the court found a due process violation where a newly-elected West Virginia Supreme Court judge declined to recuse himself in a case where the party appealing a $ 50 million adverse judgment contributed $ 3 million to the judge's campaign to unseat the incumbent. The contribution dwarfed by a million dollars the combined amount spent by both candidates' campaign committees. (Caperton, supra, 129 S.Ct. at p. 2264.) The court explained "objective standards may . . . require recusal whether or not actual bias exists or can be proved." (Id. at p. 2265.) Rather, due process necessitates recusal or disqualification where "'the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.'" (Id. at p. 2257, cf. Hackethal v. California Medical Assn. (1982) 138 Cal.App.3d 435, 443 under state due process guarantee, "disqualification may . . . be necessary if . . . human experience teaches that the probability of actual bias is too high to be constitutionally tolerable".) The Caperton majority credited the judge's subjective disavowal of bias but concluded that, viewed objectively, "the contributor's influence on the election under all the circumstances 'would offer a possible temptation to the average . . . judge to . . . lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear and true.'" (Caperton, at p. 2264.) The Court explained, "'most matters relating to judicial disqualification do not rise to a constitutional level'" and "'matters of kinship, personal bias, state policy, remoteness of interest" are generally matters of legislative discretion, "left to statutes and judicial codes." (Caperton, supra, 129 S.Ct. at p. 2259.) The court described those rare cases in which it had found that the issue of judicial disqualification had reached constitutional dimension, including cases involving (1) local tribunals where the trier of fact has a financial interest in the case, either personal or on behalf of the governmental entity he represented, and (2) criminal contempt proceedings, which should be conducted "'before a judge other than the one reviled by the contemnor.'" (Id. at p. 2262; id. at pp. 2259-2262.) The court concluded that in Caperton, in which a person with a $ 50 million stake in pending litigation had a significant and disproportionate influence on the case by contributing $ 3 million to the election campaign of an appellate justice who would ultimately decide the case, required the justice to recuse himself on constitutional grounds.