Gavel Grab

WV Editorial Decries Lack of Recusal Reform Since Caperton

Two years after the Supreme Court delivered a “landmark lesson” about West Virginia justice, “scant correction has occurred” in the Mountain State or most of America, laments a Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette editorial.

The editorial is entitled “Cash taints process.” Drawing on data from the Justice at Stake Campaign and the Brennan Center for Justice, it bluntly criticizes the lack of reform since the Supreme Court’s Caperton v. Massey ruling in 2009:

“Two years have passed since West Virginia set a bad national example of questionable justice — yet few reforms have followed the landmark lesson.”

The Caperton case came from West Virginia. In 2004, Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million to elect Brent D. Benjamin to the state Supreme Court. Massey went on to benefit from two critical votes by the judge to overturn a massive jury award against it. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court forced Justice Benjamin off of the case in Caperton. The Gazette editorial remarks:

“The breakthrough 2009 ruling spurred a wave of calls for reform, to prevent millionaires from putting favorites onto court benches to gain beneficial verdicts. This alarm increased last year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations may pour cash into all election campaigns, including those of judges.

“But scant correction has occurred. West Virginia, the heart of the controversy, did nothing to restrict big-money backing of judges — or to force those judges to recuse themselves when fat-cat donors come before them. Neither did most of America.”

The editorial goes on to quote a document from JAS and the Brennan Center, stating that “‘[j]udicial election spending has spiraled out of control in the past decade, with high court candidates raising $206.9 million in 2000-2009, more than double the $83.3 million raised in the 1990s. The Caperton case … sparked national publicity on the potential conflicts caused by special-interest spending on judicial elections. …  Most states have failed to take any meaningful action.'”

“Why hasn’t West Virginia’s Legislature or Supreme Court cleaned up this potential conflict?” the editorial asks. “A simple rule change, forcing judges to step aside when major donors appear before them, would cure it.” The editorial also urges the American Bar Association to mandate reform in its model code of judicial conduct.

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