Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Caperton V. A.T. Massey Coal Co.: Due Process Limitations on the Appearance of Judicial Bias

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Caperton V. A.T. Massey Coal Co.: Due Process Limitations on the Appearance of Judicial Bias

Article excerpt

  Whatever disagreement there may be as to the scope of the phrase
  "due process of law," there can be no doubt that it embraces the
  fundamental conception of a fair trial, with opportunity to be heard.
  --Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frank v. Mangum, 1915 (1)

Nearly ninety percent of the state and local judges in the United States face election. (2) What began as an experiment in the nineteenth century (3) has become an expensive, (4) widespread, (5) and significant (6) institution, yet many in the legal profession fail to appreciate its effects. Prior to the 2008 Term, the Supreme Court had only once openly considered whether judicial elections may yield bias, in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White. (7) In White, the Court held unconstitutional a Minnesota law that forbade judicial candidates from announcing their views on legal and political issues--a law that the state had enacted to limit apparent biases among judges. (8) In a concurrence, Justice Kennedy acknowledged "the difficulties imposed by the election system," (9) but this acknowledgement merely invited a larger question: when does the election system impose "difficulties" so significant that they render a particular elected judge unable to do justice to a particular party before her? Last Term, in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., (10) the Supreme Court again broached this topic, and again came close to answering this question.

In 1993, Hugh M. Caperton purchased the Harman Mine (Harman), a productive coal mine in Buchanan County, Virginia. (11) Four years later, A.T. Massey Coal Company (Massey), a competitor, purchased Caperton's chief customer, intending it to purchase Massey's own, inferior coal rather than Harman's. (12) Massey used this new influence to pressure Caperton to negotiate the sale of his mine, but scuttled the deal shortly before closing. (13) Harman filed for bankruptcy, and Caperton sued for tortious interference, misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy, and sought punitive damages. (14) The trial court found that Massey had invoked the sales contract's force majeure clause in bad faith and intentionally harmed both Harman and Caperton personally, and in 2002 a jury returned a $50 million verdict. (15)

Before Massey appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the state conducted its 2004 judicial elections. (16) Massey's CEO, Don Blankenship, supported local attorney Brent Benjamin against an incumbent on the court, Justice McGraw. (17) Blankenship donated $1000 (the statutory maximum (18)) to Benjamin directly and also contributed $2.5 million to an independent group called "And For The Sake Of The Kids," (19) which targeted Justice McGraw for a ruling reinstating a child molester's probation. (20) Blankenship also made more than $500,000 in independent expenditures for television advertisements and direct mailings. (21) Together, Blankenship's contributions exceeded those of the rest of Benjamin's donors combined and were three times greater than the sum spent by Benjamin's own campaign committee. (22) Benjamin won the election. (23)

The newly constituted Supreme Court of Appeals heard Massey's appeal. In a 3-2 decision, Justice Benjamin voted with the majority to overturn the jury's verdict on the grounds that the lower court erred in disregarding a forum selection clause and the preclusive effect of earlier litigation. (24) Caperton sought rehearing and moved to disqualify Justice Benjamin, as well as another justice for separate reasons. (25) Massey responded with a motion of its own to disqualify Justice Starcher, who had publicly criticized Blankenship's role in the 2004 election. (26) Justices Maynard and Starcher recused themselves, and the case was reargued. Again, the court ruled for the appellants on their forum selection and res judicata arguments, and again Justice Benjamin voted with the majority. (27) The court did not mention the propriety of Justice Benjamin's participation in the case; instead, the issue was left for the dissent and Justice Benjamin's concurrence. …

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