Volume 86, O’Connor on Point in Upcoming Supreme Court Decision

By Jake Spratt

The Denver University Law Review’s recent issue on judicial accountability timely foreshadowed a highly anticipated Supreme Court decision regarding judicial elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company.  At issue in Caperton is whether West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin’s failure to recuse himself from a political donor’s case violated the claimant’s due process rights.

Don Blankenship, CEO of A.T. Massey Coal Co., contributed over $3 million dollars to Justice Benjamin’s campaign for the bench.  At the time of the contribution, A.T. Massey was preparing an appeal from an adverse trial court ruling.  When the appeal reached the state Supreme Court, Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself, even though Blankenship’s contribution accounted for over 60% of his election campaign funds.  The West Virginia Supreme Court, Justice Benjamin participating, ruled 3-2 for A.T. Massey Coal.  

Volume 86, Issue 1 of the Denver University Law Review—led by an introduction from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—addressed the concerns raised in situations such as those in Caperton.  Indeed, Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White’s article discussed Caperton explicitly, and the “increasing concern about the effect of campaign contributions on judicial decision-making.”  Professor White’s article provides a unique perspective of the debate: as a Judge, she was herself removed in a divisive, politically-influenced election.

The losing party in Caperton appealed the West Virginia Supreme Court’s judgment, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.  The Court heard oral arguments on March 3, 2009, and the opinion should be out shortly.  Whatever the outcome, the Court’s decision will spark a new wave of scholarship and debate over the appearance of impropriety created by judicial elections.  Volume 86, Issue 1 will undoubtedly prove a valuable resource to those who take up the charge in this highly controversial, but fundamentally important debate.