The recent Supreme Court decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company may have elected judges checking lists of their major campaign contributors against upcoming cases on the docket, but what will be the lasting impact? (Click Here for more information) Caperton concerned Justice Brent D. Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court and his refusal to withdrawal from a case in which one of the parties, A.T. Massey, had been a major contributor in his campaign for a spot on the West Virginia Supreme Court. A.T. Massey had contributed close to $3 million in an effort to unseat the incumbent that then candidate Benjamin was opposing. After winning the election, Justice Benjamin refused to remove himself from a case involving A.T. Massey. He sided with A.T. Massey (resulting in 3-2 decisions) on two separate occasions, each time throwing out a $50 million jury verdict. Writing for the majority, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy called the facts “extreme” and that the situation reflected poorly on the West Virginia judicial system.
Like West Virginia, Ohio conducts elections to fill the seats of its Supreme Court. And like West Virginia (as well as every other state that fills its Supreme Court via election), Ohio has its fair share of campaign contributors. Of the 7 current members of the Ohio Supreme Court, 5 count insurance companies as their top organizational contributor. These contributions ranged from $29,000 to $124,000 during the 2008 election. Perhaps more disturbing is a 2006 New York Times article which found Ohio judges rarely removed themselves from cases involving campaign contributors and on average decide in their favor 70% of the time.
A great fictional novel to read this summer is John Grisham’s, The Appeal. The book describes how easy it is for business and insurance companies to influence judicial elections which can in turn help them increase profits and obtain favorable rulings from the judges they helped elect. While this subject matter is disturbing, the book is a great read.
The Caperton case should not be read as a broad sweeping indictment on the practice of electing state Supreme Court justices. Even Justice Kennedy made sure to point that not every contribution to a campaign should be viewed as a potential source of bias. However this decision should be used as a starting point for a larger discussion on the place of elections and campaign contributions in the judicial system. In an encouraging sign, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer is calling for a new judicial ethics policy at the state’s highest court in response to the US Supreme Court’s holding in Capterton.