The Supreme Court took a step toward recognizing the potentially corrupting influence of campaign contributions, by holding in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. that due process required the recusal of an appellate judge who had benefited from approximately $3 million in expenditures by the chairman of Massey Coal Company, in aid of the judge’s election campaign. Although there was no evidence that the judge had any direct or indirect stake in the outcome of the case, and although there was also no evidence that the judge’s decision (he was the decisive vote in a 3-2 decision reversing a $50 million judgment against Massey), was influenced by this massive campaign assistance, the Court nevertheless held that the judge’s decision not to recuse himself constituted a violation of due process.
So here is a case that seems to be crying out for redress: a guy spends $3 million to help elect a judge who then proceeds to overturn a $50 million judgment. Not only was the campaign expenditure shockingly enormous; but it actually seems to have been a small price to pay in view of the fabulous result he obtained on appeal. Even if he had no intention of obtaining such a result, and even if the judge had been completely uninfluenced by the campaign assistance, something still obviously smells wrong about this transaction. Yet the result may be very troublesome to apply, since the Court did not lay out a clear rule to tell judges when they must recuse themselves.
Instead the majority opinion (written by Justice Kennedy) merely took pains to emphasize that it was an extreme case. The opinion seems to suggest that the case should not have broad application. On the other hand, the Court has created an opening to view campaign contributions the same way that judges’ direct financial interest in a case are viewed. The likely result is that any judge who has received substantial campaign assistance from one of the litigants in any case before that judge, must now seriously think about recusal.