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Massey Coal Revisited: When Should a Judge Have to Recuse Himself?

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  • Massey Coal Revisited: When Should a Judge Have to Recuse Himself?

    Let’s stay on the campaign-finance-and-the-law topic for a moment, and examine it not through the Citizens United lens, but through the lens of the Supreme Court’s second most recent ruling on financing campaigns: its Massey Coal decision from last June.

    In Massey Coal, the Supreme Court ruled that a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court, Brent Benjamin (pictured), shouldn’t have participated in decisions overturning a $50 million judgment against Massey Coal, whose chief executive had been a major financial supporter of the justice’s campaign for office. At the time, wrote the WSJ’s Nathan Koppel in this post, “the decision effectively creates a new constitutional recusal standard for judges who take contributions to fund their election campaigns.”

    So how have states fared in crafting rules that comply with the Massey Coal decision? It’s the topic of a Koppel-authored article in the Journal today. States are responding to Massey Coal, Koppel writes. But are they going far enough? Recent examples from Wisconsin and Nevada show that some states are reluctant to force judges to disqualify themselves from cases solely because they have received large contributions.

    About 10 states, including California and Texas, have proposed new judicial-disqualification rules in the wake of Massey Coal. But overhaul efforts have met resistance from judges and businesses who oppose restraints on judges’ ability to raise campaign funds and on voters’ rights to financially support favored candidates. Critics say an array of people would be less likely to donate to campaigns should these types of laws be put on the books.

    Last Thursday, Wisconsin, for instance, rebuffed calls for recusal when contributions exceed a certain amount. The state’s Supreme Court amended the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct to specify that judges were not required to step aside in cases based solely on the fact that they have received lawful campaign contributions or expenditures from parties involved in the case. The court rejected competing proposals that would have required disqualification if judges had received contributions of $1,000 or $10,000 from parties.

    In written comments supporting the state’s new disqualification standards, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser Jr. said it would be improper to “deprive citizens who lawfully contribute to judicial campaigns…of access to the judges they help elect.”

    Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, says the state court’s decision not to require recusals will “further erode the public’s confidence in the courts.” As it stands, she says, “contributions are not automatically grounds for recusal, no matter how much is spent.”

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