Re: Ruling of The Supreme Court of The United States in Caperton Et Al. v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., Et Al.
CHICAGO, June 8, 2009 – The American Bar Association applauds the Supreme Court’s ruling that judges should withdraw from considering cases before them when contributions to their election campaigns by parties to those cases influenced the outcome of the judge’s election, creating a “serious risk of actual bias.” But the standards laid out by the court must not be viewed as the final word on this issue. The court established standards for clear violations of due process, cases where the campaign contributions are so large, so important, or so closely tied to a pending case as to “imperil ‘public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the nation’s elected judges.’” But instances remain where campaign contributions raise suspicions that justice leans to the highest bidder. Studies show the public and even many judges themselves believe campaign money from litigants and from their lawyers influences judicial decisions.
Courts rely on public confidence in the fairness of our legal system to foster willing compliance with their rulings. When confidence succumbs to cynicism, our government is at risk. The pervasive influence of money on judicial election campaigns threatens to create a crisis of confidence in our state court systems.
The ABA’s amicus brief to the court identified factors that could be considered to determine when judges ought to withdraw from ruling on a case. We agree with the court that the size and importance of a contribution, the timing of the gift, and the relationship between the donor and a pending case are all significant. The ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, working through its Judicial Disqualification Project, will continue to refine those and other factors into a series of guidelines for courts to assess whether contributions to judges’ campaigns implicate the due process rights of parties appearing before them. This evaluative process is one way to restore the public confidence in our courts so critical to preserving our government of laws.