Court: Judges Must Avoid Mere Sign Of Bias

Gavel, scales of justice and american flag. iStockphoto

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

By a 5-4 vote in a case from West Virginia, the court said that a judge who remained involved in a lawsuit filed against the company of the most generous supporter of his election deprived the other side of the constitutional right to a fair trial.

With multimillion-dollar judicial election campaigns on the rise, the court's decision Monday could have widespread significance. Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says judges are elected in 39 states and that candidates for the highest state courts have raised more than $168 million since 2000.

The West Virginia case involved more than $3 million spent by the chief executive of Massey Energy Co. to help elect state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin. At the same time, Richmond, Va.-based Massey was appealing a verdict, which now totals $82.7 million with interest, in a dispute with a local coal company. Benjamin refused to step aside from the case, despite repeated requests, and was part of a 3-2 decision to overturn the verdict.

The coal company, Harman Mining Co., and its president, Hugh Caperton, took the case to the high court.

"Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal, but this is an exceptional case," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his opinion for the court.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens joined Kennedy's opinion.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent that he shares concerns about maintaining an impartial judiciary. "But I fear that the court's decision will undermine rather than promote these values," Roberts said.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented.

The case is Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al. (08-22).

Other news from the High Court today:

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The Court has turned down a challenge to the Defense Department policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, granting a request by the Obama administration. The court said Monday that it will not hear an appeal from former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was dismissed under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The federal appeals court in Boston earlier threw out a lawsuit filed by Pietrangelo and 11 other veterans.

Suing Iraq

The court ruled unanimously that the current Iraqi government cannot be held responsible in U.S. courts for the acts of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Foreign nations usually are immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts but federal law strips that protection from countries that support terrorism. Under Saddam, Iraq was considered a state sponsor of terrorism. But the Iraqi government says the U.S.-led invasion that deposed Saddam and a federal law enacted in 2003 restored Iraq's immunity to lawsuits in American courts. The court agreed.

"Iraq's sovereign immunity was restored when the president exercised his authority to make inapplicable with respect to Iraq any provision of law that applies to countries that have supported terrorism," said Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion for the court.

Americans who were held in Iraq during the Gulf War argued that the law passed by Congress did not give the new regime blanket immunity from lawsuits in U.S. courts even though it removed Iraq's designation as a terrorist state. Americans suing Iraq include CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who was held for more than a month during the Gulf War in 1991.

The cases are Republic of Iraq v. Beaty, et al.; Republic of Iraq, et al., v. Robert Simon, et al. (07-1090 and 08-539).

What Makes A Mob?

The racketeering conviction of a reputed associate of the Gambino crime family was upheld. Edmund Boyle was convicted in connection with a string of burglaries of night deposit boxes at banks in the New York metropolitan area. He was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison.

Boyle challenged his conviction, claiming that the federal racketeering law (RICO) was intended for criminal enterprises with more structure than the loosely organized group that broke into cash-laden deposit boxes.

By a 7-2 vote, the court on Monday upheld the conviction.

"The group need not have a name, regular meetings, dues, established rules and regulations, disciplinary procedures, or induction or initiation ceremonies," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.

The case is Boyle v. U.S. (07-1309).

No, Not That Bar

A former serviceman, convicted in a military court, has a right to appeal his guilty plea even though he was no longer in the military. The Court said Jacob Denedo, a Nigerian-born permanent resident who faces deportation because of his conviction, can appeal because his lawyer had an alcohol problem and "was not sober during the course of the special court-martial proceedings."

The case is United States v. Denedo (08-267).

Sacred Lands

The Supreme Court turned down an appeal from Indian tribes that want to block expansion of a ski resort on a mountain they consider sacred.

The justices said Monday they will not get involved in a dispute between a half-dozen Western tribes and the Arizona Snowbowl ski area north of Flagstaff. The tribes wanted to block the expansion because the resort plans to use treated wastewater to make artificial snow on the mountain.

The tribes say the proposal violates a federal law on religious freedom. But the federal appeals court in San Francisco last year disagreed.

Sentencing Appeals

The Supreme Court will not consider making changes to the sentence of a radical environmentalist linked to multiple arsons across the West.

Kendall Tankersley was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, after pleading guilty to arson and attempted arson at U.S. Forest Industries in Medford in December 1998. Tankersley and nine others were convicted of a conspiracy involving 20 arsons across five Western states from 1996-2001. She complained that her sentence was excessive because she says she was one of the least culpable of those arrested.

The case is Tankersley v. United States (08-1104).

The Supreme Court also refused to hear an appeal from two former top executives of Tyco International that challenges their convictions for fraud and larceny involving more than $100 million in bonuses. The justices' action Monday ends the effort by Tyco's former Chief Executive L. Dennis Kozlowski and former Chief Financial Officer Mark Swartz to overturn their convictions. They are serving prison terms of 8 1/3 to 25 years for taking unauthorized pay.

The case is Kozlowski v. New York (08-1260).

Paying The Ponies

The justices are staying out of a fight between Illinois' casinos and horse tracks over a state law that cropped up during the indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The casinos object to a law that forces them to transfer millions of dollars to ailing horse tracks.

Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law. The high court let that ruling stand Monday without comment.

The renewal of the law in 2008 figures in the case against Blagojevich. FBI wiretaps on telephones in Blagojevich's home and the governor's office showed an alleged effort by the then-governor to shake down a racetrack owner for a sizable campaign contribution while the bill was pending. A lawyer for the owner, John Johnston, has said the contribution wasn't made.

The case is Empress Casino Joliet Corp. v. Giannoulias (08-945).
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