The United States Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., raises some unique questions for our own system of electing judges in Texas. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, holds that the campaign contributions of the chairman of the board and president of Massey Coal toward the campaign of a West Virginia Supreme Court candidate raised “the probability of actual bias ris[ing] to an unconstitutional level.” The majority gives little bright-line guidance for future cases, but in apparent recognition of the precedential implications of its holding, the majority is careful to emphasize the extreme nature of the facts of the case, including that the Massey chairman donated the maximum personal contribution to the candidate and $2.5 million to a political PAC, and those donations accounted for more than two-thirds of the total funds raised. The contributions were more than the total amount spent by all other supporters for the candidate.
The dissent, written by Chief Justice Roberts, expresses concern at extending due process to application of judicial disqualification. Instead, the dissent suggests that disqualification is a matter more properly left to the states to regulate by statute or rule. By extending due process to matters of disqualification, the dissent warns that the majority may actually undermine concerns for the need to maintain a fair, independent and impartial judiciary. The Court’s opinions may be found at this link.
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