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Idea of the Day: Grading States’ Recusal Records

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Only a few countries in the world elect their judges, and the United States is the only one in which some judicial candidates need to raise millions of dollars to get elected and stay on the bench. The amount of campaign cash in judicial elections has risen sharply in recent decades. After the U.S. Supreme Court “unleashe[d] the floodgates” of independent spending in Citizens United, judicial candidates spent a record $33.7 million on ads in the 2011–2012 election cycle. A 2013 report from three groups that advocate for fair courts noted, “In recent years, as the cost of judicial campaigns has soared, the boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of law have become increasingly blurred.”

Most of this campaign cash comes from lawyers and businesses with a financial interest in the rulings of the judges they help elect. This has led to glaring conflicts of interest, and the U.S. Supreme Court addressed these ethical dilemmas in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. The Court ruled in 2009 that “extraordinary” campaign donations by a defendant corporation violated the plaintiff’s due process rights. Hugh Caperton was the owner of a mining company who sued a much larger corporation and was awarded $50 million by a West Virginia jury. But while the case was pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court, Don Blankenship, then-CEO of Massey Coal, helped elect a Republican justice to that court with $3 million in campaign cash—around three times the total amount that the justice’s campaign spent. The newly elected justice refused to recuse himself and cast the deciding vote to overturn the verdict against Massey Coal.

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This is part of a regular column: Idea of the Day

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