Arkansas Law Review
Two reasons may support the result in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. First, though Caperton may indeed interject greater federal oversight of state judges as well as new oversight of the judges of courts of last resort, Caperton does not add a new review for most judges. Second, the due process of law must protect litigants from apparent corruption, or it cannot protect them from real corruption.
Caperton arose in a messy lawsuit between two West Virginia energy companies—Harman Mining, headed by Hugh Caperton, and the A.T. Massey Coal Company, headed by Don Blankenship—which had gone to trial in 2002, resulting in a $50 million jury verdict for Caperton’s Harman Mining. Massey appealed the verdict. While the appeal moved up, Don Blankenship created a nonprofit entity that supported Brent Benjamin, a candidate challenging the state chief justice for reelection. When Blankenship’s case reached the state supreme court of appeals, Justice Benjamin, who had since been seated, refused to recuse himself, claiming that he would be unbiased in Massey’s case. Benjamin cast one of the deciding votes in a 3-2 decision to overturn the verdict. Caperton took the case to the United States Supreme Court, claiming that Harmon Mining, which was now defunct, had been denied due process of law by Benjamin’s vote. Justice Kennedy and a majority agreed. Due process of law forbids a judge to sit on a case involving a party who has just paid for that judge’s election to the bench. More to the point, every litigant in a court in the United States has a right to a judge who has not just been placed on the bench by that litigant’s opponent.
Stephen M. Sheppard, Caperton, Due Process, and Judicial Duty: Recusal Oversight In Patrons’ Cases, 64 Ark. L. Rev. 113 (2011).