The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument next week in Caperton v. Massey about whether West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin violated the Constitution when he cast the deciding vote in favor of his campaign contributors, who spent $3 million to get him elected to the appellate court.
The Caperton case raises questions about conflicts of interest arising from judicial campaign fundraising. Justice Benjamin refused to remove himself from deciding the appeal of the $50 million jury verdict even though 60% of the judge’s campaign funds came from the defendant.
The argument will take place at a time when judicial misconduct scandals are making headlines across the country. Last week, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller was ordered to publicly defend her 2007 decision to close the court at 5:00 p.m. rather than allow death row inmate Michael Richards to file a motion to stay his execution based on the United States Supreme Court’s decision that same day to review the constitutionality of lethal injection. Richards was executed at 6:00 p.m. that night, making him the only person in the country to be executed while the lethal injection case was pending. The hearing could result in a recommendation that Judge Keller be removed from the court for casting public discredit on the judiciary.
In Pennsylvania, two juvenile court judges made national news this month when they pleaded guilty to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks from private juvenile detention facilities in exchange for sending children who appeared before them to those facilities. Children charged with infractions that typically would not warrant detention at all – including an honor student who made fun of her school administration on MySpace – were sentenced to months in private facilities from which the judges received payment.
New York Court of Appeals Judge-Elect Nora Anderson faces charges of fraud stemming from her bid to become a Manhattan Surrogate Court Judge. Andersen allegedly tried to hide from auditors $250,000 in campaign contributions she received from her boss. In January, the California Supreme Court refused to review a toxic tort case because four of the court’s seven judges had accepted major campaign contributions from the oil companies who were being sued.
Concerns about the impact of political and financial pressures on judicial decision-making are particularly relevant in Alabama, where judges must raise large sums of money to compete in the country’s costliest judicial campaigns. Political pressure to overrule jury sentencing verdicts in capital cases also is a factor unique to Alabama, where judges’ records for imposing and upholding death sentences are a major focus of judicial campaigns.
Alabama is the only state in the country that gives judges unfettered power to overrule jury verdicts in capital sentencing. The practice accounts for over a quarter of Alabama’s death sentences and increases in frequency during election years.