The Chief Justice of New York’s highest court, Jonathan Lippman, is receiving accolades from his announcement this week that the Administrative Board of Courts has proposed a new rule to address when judges must recuse themselves when those appearing before them have contributed money to their campaigns. The proposed rule was announced as part
Campaign finance and judicial disqualification
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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Subject-matter Jurisdiction and Consent
After reading Combs v. Kaufman County, I can’t help but wonder if there is something missing from the Court’s opinion or if the opinion contains an error. Nontheless, I was surprised to learn about a rarely-invoked provision of the Texas Constitution that allows parties to a suit to pick their own judge.
Article V, Section 16 of the Texas Constitution provides that when the judge of a county court is disqualified, "the parties interested may, by consent, appoint a proper person to try said case." In Combs, the presiding judge of the Kaufman County Constitutional Court apparently disqualified herself from hearing a guardianship for Wallace Darst. [Note, the opinion uses the term "recused," which has a different legal meaning, but from the facts, it appears the Court meant to use the term "disqualified"]. The parties subsequently asked Judge Glen Ashworth, who was then district judge for the 86th Judicial District Court, to preside over the guardianship. Here, the opinion is somewhat confusing or inconsistent as to whether Judge Ashworth merely presided as judge for the constitutional county court or whether the case was treated as having been transferred to the 86th District Court, with Judge Ashworth presiding as judge of that court. Judge Ashworth subsequently awarded the guardian (Combs) a fee of $143,168.95 and that order was not appealed.…
U.S. Supreme Court Reviews Judicial Recusals in Elective Judicial Systems
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company, involving a judicial recusal in West Virginia where judges are elected. The precise question presented is "whether Justice Benjamin’s failure to recuse himself from participation in his principal financial supporter’s case violated the Due Process Clause of …