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Posted June 8, 2009 by J. Gerald Hebert

A Victory for Judicial Integrity from High Court

Today’s decision of the Supreme Court in Caperton v. Massey is a welcome result for anyone interested in ensuring the fairness and integrity of the judicial decision-making process.  After all, as the Court noted in its opinion, the facts are extreme:  a judge receives the benefit of approximately $3 million in campaign expenditures from the CEO of a corporation facing a $50 million damages verdict in a pending lawsuit and then casts the deciding vote in favor of the corporation, overturning that jury award. 

It is surprising that four Justices could muster a dissent given the particularly appalling set of circumstances that gave rise to this case. 

The majority carefully notes the decision will not open a floodgate of new lawsuits challenging a judge’s right to decide a case.  Only in “rare” cases will judges be subject to claims that they should recuse themselves because their participation will cause actual bias or an appearance of bias.  Congress and the courts for years have been able to discern corruption or the appearance of corruption in the context of campaign finance regulation.  So it stands to reason that they would be able to articulate a constitutional standard for recusal that uses objective measurements to determine whether there is a probability or the appearance of bias in a case where the facts are as extreme as this one. 

The case is also important because the vast majority of the expenditures in Caperton were not direct contributions to the judge but rather were made by an independent group on the judge’s behalf.  This fact gives us hope that there may be five votes on the Court for regulating those independent groups, like 527 organizations, who spend millions of dollars to influence federal elections.    As the Court noted, there is a serious risk of actual or potential bias when a person or group raises and spends vast amounts of money to influence a judge’s election campaign.   The “serious risk” of corruption or the appearance of corruption seemingly would also apply to activities of 527 groups in non-judicial candidate elections.  

The Campaign Legal Center, together with the Brennan Center for Justice and the Reform Institute, filed an amici curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. Massey.

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