Gavel Grab

Caperton v. Massey: a Media Review

“Is justice for sale?”

This question has echoed through recent years as judicial elections have become increasingly nasty and expensive. It has reached a crescendo in recent weeks, as reporters, columnists and editorial writers have reviewed the case of Caperton v. Massey.

An overwhelming verdict has emerged. Like the public at large, according to recent polls, the media has focused strongly on the question of whether a judge can be impartial when one side has spent heavily in his or her election.

Case in point: Caperton v. Massey. The West Virginia case involves a $50 million fraud lawsuit against A.T. Massey Coal in favor of a rival company owned by Hugh Caperton. While the case was on appeal, Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million to help elect then-lawyer Brent Benjamin to the state supreme court.

Here is a quick back on some of the more notable articles and commentaries:

USA Today led the movement with an extensive, front-page article which provided a detailed summary of the case and a perceptive overview of the issues at hand. While exploring the arguments for and against reforming recusal standards, the article also noted that the legitimacy of the judicial system was at stake in the eyes of the public:

The notion of impartial judges is central to the U.S. legal system, and the West Virginia case — to be heard by the high court March 3 — has become Exhibit A in the debate over how high-dollar state judicial elections can raise questions about the fairness of some rulings.

An article in The Washington Post, which provides an in-depth examination of the litigants and the history of Caperton, also emphasized the extensive reach of the case, declaring that “the implications go far beyond West Virginia, energizing critics of the multimillion-dollar political campaigns that are now the norm in many of the 39 states that elect judges, where no-holds-barred television advertising has replaced the staid and polite debates of the past.”

Considering these complications, the U.S. Supreme Court faces the difficult challenge of examining and possibly reforming the current recusal standards for judges across the nation, according to a perceptive article in The National Law Journal. As the highest court has never dared set firm standards upon judges, the nine justices must carefully weave through the arguments and constitutional obligations that may or may not require stricter rules for recusal. As the article remarks, “In this new age of multimillion-dollar battles for state supreme court seats, can the U.S. Supreme Court find a way to guide elected judges ‘to hold the balance nice, clear and true’ when litigants challenge their impartiality?”

Furthermore, the concern over the public perception of Caperton became especially important when a USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that 89% of those surveyed believed that the influence of campaign contribution on judicial decisions was problematic, and 90% agreed that judges should be removed from a case involving a campaign contributor.

These figures were complemented by a Justice at Stake/Harris Interactive poll which found that 81% of those surveyed believed that judges themselves should not decide whether can hear a case impartially. Additionally, 73% admitted they would question the judges’ neutrality if one party in the case had spent $1 million to help elect the judge.

The public concern over the involvement of special interests in the administration of justice was only compounded by the similarities of the West Virginia case to the recent John Grisham novel, The Appeal. As USA Today argued, Caperton is a “Supreme Court case with the feel of a best seller.”

USA TodayAs the date of the oral arguments arrived, three major newspapers offered provocative editorials the called for the U.S. Supreme Court to set recusal standards for judges in cases of large campaign contributions. USA Today’s editorial was particularly scathing:

You’ve got to give mining executive Don Blankenship credit for this much: By spending $3 million on venomous ads to unseat a West Virginia Supreme Court justice, Blankenship has inadvertently done what no reform group ever could: He has vividly illustrated how big money corrupts judicial elections. It puts justice up for sale to the highest bidder — or at least raises that suspicion.

The editorial goes on to detail the recently vicious judicial elections that have been marred by the influence of special interests, resulting in “mudslinging, multimillion-dollar brawls.” Without any specified recusal standards from the U.S. Supreme Court, the editorial argued, judicial system would, essentially, be “putting ‘for sale’ signs on the doors of the nation’s courts.”

An editorial for The Washington Post was also relentless, remarking that, “If ever there was a case that illustrated why electing judges is a bad idea, it is the one out of West Virginia that the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear [March 3].” While The Post that “seedy” judicial elections were not the main focus of the Court, any attempt by the high court to define recusal standards would be very messy.

Instead, the editorial maintained,

States should consider barring judges from considering cases involving litigants or lawyers who were directly or indirectly responsible for campaign contributions beyond a certain limit. More fundamental, states should consider abolishing judicial elections in favor of an appointment system that distances jurists from politics and fundraising.


A similar plea was made in an editorial in The New York Times. Because this case involves the right to be heard before an impartial judge who has not been influenced by special interests, it

offers the nation’s top court the opportunity to make clear that judges who receive outsize campaign contributions have a duty to recuse themselves. Although not all contributions implicate due process, Mr. Blankenship’s multimillion-dollar quest to tilt the scales of justice surely does. It is vitally important for the Supreme Court to say so.

As this case embodies “an alarming trend” of special interest contributions to judicial campaigns, the U.S. Supreme Court must take steps to eliminate the “sleazy partisan politics… [that] must be kept as far away as possible from the nation’s courthouses.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Caperton on March 3 and will likely rule on the case by the summer.

To find out more about Caperton v. Massey, you can visit the Justice at Stake Caperton resource site.

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  1. […] growing debate over recusal of judges over campaign cash has seeped into the federal courts.  This time questions […]

  2. Equal Justice For All June 13th, 2009 1:28 pm

    Do you know anyone that ever walked out of a courtroom following a decision, scratching their head wondering how they could possibly have lost their case? Many of the decisions in such cases may in fact be proven by law or precedent but now and again, there may be another factor. The money and greed are the real culprits here. We must take the money out of politics.
    No more pay for play. Serious campaign finance reform is the solution.

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