Monday, June 08, 2009

Can Justice Be Bought?

Sometimes it hard for a rational human to understand what conservatives define as "right" and "wrong." Take, for example, the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal. Bribing a judge is wrong; buying a judge outright is legitimate commerce.

Any fair analysis of the election of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin would conclude that the CEO of Massey Coal, Don Blankenship, bought himself a judge. The purchase was perfectly legal. Blankenship spent over $3 million dollars in donations and independent expenditures to elect Benjamin. This easily eclipsed what everyone else spent or donated on the race, on all of the judicial candidates combined, including Benjamin. It is fair to describe Massey Coal as the majority shareholder of Justice Benjamin.

Benjamin repaid Massey Coal by refusing to recuse himself and leading his court to overturn a $50 million judgment against Massey Coal.

On a 5-4 vote the United States Supreme Court overturned the West Virginia case.
We conclude that there is a serious risk of actual bias—based on objective and reasonable perceptions—when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent. ~ Justice Kennedy, Caperton v. Massey Coal
Now, we get to the dissent. Chief Justice Roberts in an opinion shared by Alito, Thomas, and Scalia stated that even if there was bias, even if Justice Benjamin was a bought and paid for toady, that is no reason to overturn an otherwise perfectly legal judgment. It is tough to read through one of Roberts opinions because they are void of legal reference and chockablock full of ad hominem arguments, including his conclusion that Benjamin would have won the election without Massey's $3 million.

Basically, Roberts said that because they can't draw a hard line between buying a judge and merely renting one interfering in this case can only besmirch the rulings of judges who lease out their opinions from time to time.
I am sure there are cases where a “probability of bias” should lead the prudent judge to step aside, but the judge fails to do so. Maybe this is one of them. But I believe that opening the door to recusal claims under the Due Process Clause, for an amorphous “probability of bias,” will itself bring our judicial system into undeserved disrepute, and diminish the confidence of the American people in the fairness and integrity of their courts. ~ Justice Roberts, Ibid.

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