St. Mary's Law Journal


In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the United States Supreme Court addressed whether the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution was violated by the denial of a motion to recuse. The motion sought to recuse a Supreme Court of Appeals Justice from West Virginia. The justice received an extraordinary campaign contribution from the chief officer of a corporate party to a case pending before the court. Several Texas courts addressed whether recusal was necessary based on campaign contributions prior to the decision in Caperton. Texas courts have universally held that recusal was not required. The United States Supreme Court noted the issue in Caperton arose in the context of judicial elections. In explaining the reasons for denying the recusal motions, Justice Benjamin stated Caperton failed to provide objective evidence or information regarding actual bias, relying instead on subjective beliefs. The Supreme Court concluded the implementation of the Due Process Clause required objective rules and standards, not proof of actual, subjective bias. Recusal is required when “the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” While not every campaign contribution creates the probability of bias requiring recusal, the Court stated Caperton was an exceptional case. Although Caperton did not result in radical substantive changes in the law, litigants may cite Caperton in an increased rash of motions for recusal. In Texas, the contribution limits established by Texas’s Judicial Campaign Fairness Act will affect recusal rulings. Hopefully, Caperton can provide the impetus for changing Texas’s system of electing judges. With two-thirds of Texas voters wanting the current system to remain unchanged, it would be overly optimistic to believe such a change will come to fruition anytime soon.


St. Mary's University School of Law