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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A Dallas (Texas) Morning News editorial saluted the legacy of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who will step down soon. It listed his accomplishments and added, “While not able to claim a victory on the merit selection of judges, he deserves praise for spotlighting the influence of entrenched party politics on the justice system in Texas, one of only a handful of states that hold partisan judicial elections.”
  • Laurence Leamer’s book about a court fight that led to Caperton v. Massey, a landmark 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision about runaway judicial election spending and impartial courts, gets a review in the Washington Post.
  • Christian values are needed for capitalism to succeed, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remarked in a talk in Houston, according to the Associated Press. 
  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued her public criticism of the Roberts Court’s majority, noting in a Philadelphia address the court’s striking down a key section of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Associated Press reported. “That’s an example of striking down legislation on a subject that the people in the political arena are better informed about than the court is,” she said.
  • Janet Napolitano, the departing Homeland Security security, deserves appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Vice President Joe Biden suggested, according to the Associated Press.

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New Book Examines Caperton Litigation, ‘Compromised Court’

Hugh Caperton’s longtime battle with the former A.T. Massey Coal Company, which resulted in a landmark 2009 Supreme Court decision about runaway judicial election spending and impartial courts, isn’t fading into history.

The conflict and the role of Caperton’s two Pittsburgh attorneys is the topic of a book scheduled for publication soon, called “The Price of Justice.” It presents a compelling tale that is sympathetic to Caperton, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review.

The book by Laurence Leamer also delivers a decidedly unsympathetic view of the West Virginia Supreme Court. Regarding businessman Caperton’s legal dispute with then-Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, the review says:

“With a careful attention to detail, Mr. Leamer chronicles intrigue inside the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which three times took up Massey’s appeal of the $50 million awarded to [Caperton’s] Harman Development. From Justice Elliott ‘Spike’ Maynard, who vacationed with Mr. Blankenship on the Riviera then ruled with the majority in throwing out the $50 million verdict against Massey, to Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to recuse himself Read more

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Hugh Caperton Wins New Round in Fight Against Massey

Hugh Caperton (photo), plaintiff in a landmark 2009 Supreme Court decision about runaway judicial election spending and impartial courts, has won a significant round in his long-running legal dispute with the former A.T. Massey Coal Company.

The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that Caperton and his coal companies can proceed with a 2010 lawsuit against Massey in a Buchanan County, Va. court, according to the West Virginia Gazette. Although a West Virginia jury awarded in 2002 a $50 million verdict in favor of a Caperton company in similar litigation, the West Virginia Supreme Court voted on three different occasions to overturn that verdict. Caperton contends his companies were harmed financially after Massey reduced the quantity of coal that it had agreed to purchase.

In November 2009 the West Virginia court issued its ruling  after Justice Brent Benjamin had recused himself due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Caperton v. Massey. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that excessive campaign spending in a judicial election could force elected judges to step aside from some cases involving campaign supporters. Then-Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship had spent $3 million to help Benjamin win election. Read more

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Pared-Back Public Financing Plan Before West Virginia Senate

A state Senate committee pared back a House-passed bill to make permanent a public financing program for West Virginia Supreme Court candidates. The revised version would extend the program through 2016, when the next Supreme Court elections are held.

The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the legislation after concerns were expressed about adequate funding for the program, the Associated Press reported.

To learn more about the legislation, see Gavel Grab. The pilot public financing program for judicial elections was adopted after West Virginia became a poster child for campaign finance reform advocates, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Caperton v. Massey.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled then that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice could not participate in a case involving a coal company whose CEO had spent $3 million to help elect him. The high court said the “probability of bias” violated an opposing litigant’s right to a fair, impartial hearing.

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North Carolina May Consider Ending Public Financing Plan

Some North Carolina legislators have proposed ending the state’s pioneering public financing program for judicial campaigns. It’s the wrong way to go, Jim Buchanan, Asheville Citizen-Times editorial page editor, writes in a commentary.

All eight appellate court candidates participated in the program in the 2012 court election cycle, and the program has enjoyed bipartisan backing and broad participation, Buchanan says. Alluding to special-interest funds that were poured into the 2012 state Supreme Court election, Buchanan suggests:

“Just because a judicial candidate receives bushels of money doesn’t guarantee a judge will rule in favor of the interests giving that money. But it sure increases the odds.”

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Election Support Cited in Recusal Request for North Carolina Judge

Groups including the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and Democracy North Carolina have asked North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby to step aside from participating in a legislative and congressional redistricting case.

The groups are plaintiffs in the redistricting case, and they submitted a motion contending that financial support from persons and groups having a direct stake in the case ”had a significant and disproportionate influence in Justice Newby’s victory” on Election Day, according to a (Raleigh) News & Observer article.

“If justice and fairness are to prevail, the integrity of the court’s justices and the proceedings cannot be influenced by money or even have the appearance of being sold to the highest bidder,” state NAACP President Rev. William Barber said, according to a Charlotte Post report.

Recent media reports have put at $2.3 million the outside support that Justice Newby benefited from in his election win over Judge Sam Ervin IV; super PACs were instrumental in the heavy spending. Read more

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NC Campaign Cash Could Cause Tension in Courts

The 2012 race for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court calls into question whether large campaign contributions will impact the judgment of those elected to the bench, says a WRAL.com article.

Justice Paul Newby won a second term on the high court after two independent groups raised and spent nearly $2 million to support him. About half of the money came from Republican groups such as the Republican State Leadership Committee, the article says.

Duke University law professor Paul Carrington says the Republicans gave large sums of money to Newby to sway his decisions in their favor. There is a possibility the Supreme Court may be asked to rule on the legality of new legislative districts drawn by Republican lawmakers.

“The only reason they would do that is because they think that Newby will sustain the redistricting arrangement. I think it’s pretty rotten,” Carrington said. Read more

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West Virginia Court Candidates Favor Non-Partisan Races

Three of four candidates seeking election to two seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court said they support non-partisan judicial elections.

Democratic candidate Tish Chafin and Republicans Allen Loughry and John Yoder discussed their views at a forum sponsored by the South Charleston Chamber of Commerce, according to a State Journal article. The fourth candidate, incumbent Justice Robin Jean Davis, a Democrat, did not attend the forum.

“I think that it’s absolutely, entirely appropriate for you to expect political responses from your governors and from your legislators,” Loughry said. “The judiciary should be the nonpolitical branch of government.”

Another reform discussed at the forum involves judicial recusal. Chafin said Caperton v. Massey, a judicial election spending case from West Virginia that resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, gave the state a “black eye.” You can learn more about the candidates’ views on recusal reform from Gavel Grab.

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Panel May Propose New Recusal Standards in Illinois

A special panel of the Illinois State Bar Association is working to draft recommendations for new guidelines about disqualification of judges in an era of increased judicial election spending.

John Thies, the state Bar president, said he established the committee in part because of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2009 ruling in a judicial recusal case, Caperton v. Massey, and in part out of concern over public perceptions when judges hear cases involving parties who contributed to their campaigns. He was interviewed by the Madison County (Illinois) Record.

Caperton highlighted conflict of interest concerns raised by spending to influence court elections in West Virginia. The Supreme Court found that there was a risk of bias when a West Virginia  justice voted on a case involving a coal company whose chief executive had spent millions to help the justice win election. Caperton moved the issue of judicial recusal to the national stage.

Regarding public perception, Thies said greater public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary would be inspired by having disqualification standards that clarify when a judge should recuse.

The article recaps episodes in Illinois that have spotlighted a need for new recusal rules. They include a judge’s acceptance of $30,000 in campaign contributions from law firms representing plaintiffs in asbestos-exposure litigation. The judge was reassigned from hearing all asbestos cases after her campaign had received the law firms’ donations (see Gavel Grab).

Whitney Woodward of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a JAS partner group, said creating recusal standards would offer the best route “to improve the public’s confidence in our courts.”

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Poll Shows Dead Heat in West Virginia High Court Race

Two rival candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court are locked in a statistical dead heat, according to a West Virginia Record article that reported on a poll by Repass and Partners.

Republican John Yoder, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge, got support from 29 percent of likely voters and Democrat Letitia “Tish” Chafin, a former State Bar president, got support from 30 percent.

Such a close race opens the door to a more expensive judicial election as donors see a real chance to put their favored candidate on the court. West Virginia is no stranger to runaway judicial election spending, and conflict-of-interest concerns raised by spending to influence West Virginia court elections were highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2009 decision, Caperton v. Massey.

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