Supreme Court and elected judges

Before we get going on this post, did you see that Obama Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor broke her ankle?  If I were a superstitious SC nominee, I would be a bit nervous.  Hopefully she recovers quickly.  She’ll need her strength for Senate grilling.

Moving on to something vaguely tangential, the Supreme Court ruled today that a West Virginia judge who received campaign money from a litigant should have recused himself from the case instead of making a ruling.  The parties involved are WV Justice Brent Benjamin and a chief executive at A.T. Massey Coal Co., who contributed more than $3 million to Justice Benjamin’s election effort.

The 5-4 decision ruled that Justice Benjamin, in all likelihood, had a conflict of interest and should have removed himself from the case.  He did not.  Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion stated:

“Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when…a man chooses the judge in his own cause,” Mr. Kennedy wrote. “And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.”

Texas is one of the 39 states that elects its judges. (Remember this one?)  It’s unclear what effect this will have on all states, but it sends a clear message that elected judges should think twice before ruling on a case involving campaign contributors.

Justice Roberts, who wrote a dissenting opinion, warned that this decision will further skew public opinion of the judicial branch.  From the NYTimes:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote a dissent in which he asserted that, contrary to the majority’s insistence, the outcome in Caperton v. Massey “will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be.”

“The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case,” the chief justice wrote, listing dozens of questions that he said the majority had raised without really answering and that the lower courts will have to wrestle with.

Chalk up this decision with Boston Legal, The Practice and Night Court as those influences messing with our minds about how the judicial system works, I guess.

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