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Legal Reform Groups Hail Supremes’ Decision

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The following is a press release from Justice at Stake, a legal reform advocacy group.

Organizations representing a broad swath of America’s legal community hailed today’s U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. Massey and pledged to step up their efforts to help states insulate their courts from special-interest influence.

“This is a tremendous victory. The Supreme Court said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign in Washington. “Today’s ruling is a critical first step. But states that elect judges must get to work now, to keep campaign cash out of our courts of law.”

James Sample, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, who authored a “friend of the court” brief in support of the petitioners, noted that, “Ted Olson and his clients earned a victory not only for themselves, but for all Americans who believe in the most basic aspect of the rule of law, the right to a fair hearing.”

Caperton v. Massey, which grew out of a case involving two West Virginia coal companies, became a widely publicized poster child for what can happen when special interests dominate the election of judges.

Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co., spent $3 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court in 2004 after a jury had slapped his company with a $50 million judgment for fraudulent business practices. Benjamin twice refused to recuse himself, and cast the deciding vote to overturn the jury award.

Competing coal executive Hugh Caperton argued that Benjamin’s action violated his right to a fair hearing in an impartial court, saying that the 14th Amendment due process clause required Benjamin not to rule in a case involving such a significant benefactor.

His argument was supported by an unprecedented array of groups, including 27 retired state Supreme Court justices, business organizations that included Wal-Mart, Intel, Pepsi and Lockheed-Martin, and civic reform and legal affairs groups, including the American Bar Association.

“Polls show that three Americans in four believe that campaign spending can influence courtroom decisions,” said Brandenburg, who noted that $200 million was spent on state Supreme Court elections from 2000-08, more than double the $85.4 million spent in the entire 1990s. “Without measures to keep courts fair and impartial, spending to elect judges will continue to run away, and public trust will continue to erode.”

Although most states have rules calling on judges to recuse themselves when there might be just an appearance of bias, today’s ruling is the first time that the Supreme Court has said such rules must in some cases be applied to cases of extreme election spending.

State Supreme Courts in Michigan and Wisconsin already are reviewing proposals that could redefine when judges should step aside from cases involving campaign backers.

“The arena now shifts to state Supreme Courts, which have the power to reform recusal rules to restore public confidence,” Brandenburg said. “Responsible reforms at the state level will be pursued with greater vigor than ever.”

For further information on the Caperton v. Massey case, see the Caperton resource pages at the Brennan Center for Justice and the Justice at Stake Campaign. Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan national partnership that promotes reforms to keep courts fair and impartial.

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