News Release

Large Political Contributions in Judicial Races Implicate Due Process, Supreme Court Rules

Washington, DC­ (June 8, 2009) – Today’s Supreme Court ruling that due process requires the recusal of an elected judge whenever it appears that the judge has been bought and paid for with campaign contributions by one of the parties before him is a victory for the integrity of the courts, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said. NACDL President John Wesley Hall, a noted legal ethicist, said in a statement the decision sends a clear message that “judicial electioneering may cross a constitutional line."

In a case with substantial implications for elected state judges nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court held today in a close decision that a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice must recuse himself from a case involving a company whose chairman contributed $3 million to the justice’s election campaign. The case, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., has important due process implications. NACDL filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case arguing that due process required recusal.

NACDL President John Wesley Hall, an expert on legal ethics, said the court made the right decision:

The Supreme Court’s decision today is a critical step in ensuring due process. There cannot be a fair trial without an impartial judge. Judges engaged in election campaigns, with all the attendant political rhetoric, can lose sight of their responsibility to be an impartial arbiter. This decision sends a much-needed signal that judicial electioneering may cross a constitutional line.

Throughout the decision, the Court noted the inherent tension between a need for an objective analysis of the potential for bias and the personal, subjective nature of the individual judge’s determination of whether to recuse. “There is an easy way to fix this problem,” noted Hall. “You simply require a different judge to decide the recusal motion.”

That solution, Hall said, is already in place in other jurisdictions. For example, in the federal system, when a party files an affidavit charging that a judge must be recused due to bias, the matter is transferred to another judge to ensure an objective review of the allegation.

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.