The best justice money can buy?

On Monday, the Supreme Court made a ruling that should have been an absolute no-brainer for anyone with common sense. The justices, in a 5-4 decision, said a West Virginia Supreme Court judge who received $3 million dollars in campaign contributions from a single donor, who just happened to be a defendant in a case the judge was to rule on, should have recused himself.

Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal company executive who spent $3 million to help win election for a new justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court, received a favorable ruling when that judge cast the deciding vote that threw out a $50 million jury verdict against the coal company. The high court said that this type of conflict creates a serious risk of "actual bias" and violates the Constitution's guarantees of due process of law. I'm shocked! You mean an elected official who received huge amounts of money from a person or a business, to help him win his office, could actually be influenced by the largess?

It seems evident that Mr. Blankenship made a sound investment by putting up $3 million to save $50 million. He was aware that the judge running for reelection would vote against him, therefore, he "invested" in that judge's opponent, Brent Benjamin, who, it turned out, voted for him. Talk about having the best justice money can buy! This case illustrates better than most how insidious corruption is in a system that allows people to spend large sums of money to elect people who will preside over cases involving them. Moreover, it loudly proclaims that there are people so arrogant and so dismissive of public opinion that they have no fear of consequences. Was Benjamin willing to accept millions of dollars for his campaign, with no regard for the perception it would create when he voted for his benefactor? I realize that's a rhetorical question, but one that needs to be asked every time a large donation is viewed as influencing what we like to refer to as blind justice.      

Was that candidate so eager to be elected that he was willing to risk the appearance of corruption? Did he believe it was worth the risk as long as no one could prove that there was a quid pro quo? Many court cases are decided on the basis of enough circumstantial evidence to cause a reasonable person to conclude that the defendant committed the crime in question. Hence, when a business owner stands to lose $50 million in a judgment and spends six percent of that figure to have that judgment put aside, I smell a rat.

Last year, two studies were done on two state supreme courts in Ohio and Louisiana, and they concluded that judges who had received significant campaign contributions from a party to a suit before their court were far more likely to vote for the contributor. Again, this didn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. The West Virginia case puts a spotlight on a growing concern about the impact of money on our system of government.

Ask yourself; why would anyone spend $3 million dollars to elect a judge unless he/she felt certain that they would get a favorable ruling on a case? The only thing missing here is the tape recording, video, or written communication between the judge and the defendant. What's also very interesting, if not downright frightening, is that 4 Supreme Court judges dissented in this opinion, including Chief Justice John Roberts. He said the new rule "provides no guidance to judges and litigants about when recusal will be constitutionally required. This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be." Gimme a break! How much "guidance" do they need in cases like this? If judges aren't discerning enough to realize the perception such behavior creates, they have serious flaws in their "judgment," and have no business sitting in judgment of others.   

I like what Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority:

"Blankenship's extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome. Just as no man is allowed to be the judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when, without the consent of other parties, a man chooses the judge in his own cause. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was here a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin's recusal." Let's be honest; if he were going to recuse himself, he wouldn't have taken the $3 million in the first place, nor would it have been offered.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.
On Monday, the Supreme Court made a ruling that should have been an absolute no-brainer for anyone with common sense. The justices, in a 5-4 decision, said a West Virginia Supreme Court judge who received $3 million dollars in campaign contributions from a single donor, who just happened to be a defendant in a case the judge was to rule on, should have recused himself.

Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal company executive who spent $3 million to help win election for a new justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court, received a favorable ruling when that judge cast the deciding vote that threw out a $50 million jury verdict against the coal company. The high court said that this type of conflict creates a serious risk of "actual bias" and violates the Constitution's guarantees of due process of law. I'm shocked! You mean an elected official who received huge amounts of money from a person or a business, to help him win his office, could actually be influenced by the largess?

It seems evident that Mr. Blankenship made a sound investment by putting up $3 million to save $50 million. He was aware that the judge running for reelection would vote against him, therefore, he "invested" in that judge's opponent, Brent Benjamin, who, it turned out, voted for him. Talk about having the best justice money can buy! This case illustrates better than most how insidious corruption is in a system that allows people to spend large sums of money to elect people who will preside over cases involving them. Moreover, it loudly proclaims that there are people so arrogant and so dismissive of public opinion that they have no fear of consequences. Was Benjamin willing to accept millions of dollars for his campaign, with no regard for the perception it would create when he voted for his benefactor? I realize that's a rhetorical question, but one that needs to be asked every time a large donation is viewed as influencing what we like to refer to as blind justice.      

Was that candidate so eager to be elected that he was willing to risk the appearance of corruption? Did he believe it was worth the risk as long as no one could prove that there was a quid pro quo? Many court cases are decided on the basis of enough circumstantial evidence to cause a reasonable person to conclude that the defendant committed the crime in question. Hence, when a business owner stands to lose $50 million in a judgment and spends six percent of that figure to have that judgment put aside, I smell a rat.

Last year, two studies were done on two state supreme courts in Ohio and Louisiana, and they concluded that judges who had received significant campaign contributions from a party to a suit before their court were far more likely to vote for the contributor. Again, this didn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. The West Virginia case puts a spotlight on a growing concern about the impact of money on our system of government.

Ask yourself; why would anyone spend $3 million dollars to elect a judge unless he/she felt certain that they would get a favorable ruling on a case? The only thing missing here is the tape recording, video, or written communication between the judge and the defendant. What's also very interesting, if not downright frightening, is that 4 Supreme Court judges dissented in this opinion, including Chief Justice John Roberts. He said the new rule "provides no guidance to judges and litigants about when recusal will be constitutionally required. This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be." Gimme a break! How much "guidance" do they need in cases like this? If judges aren't discerning enough to realize the perception such behavior creates, they have serious flaws in their "judgment," and have no business sitting in judgment of others.   

I like what Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority:

"Blankenship's extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome. Just as no man is allowed to be the judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when, without the consent of other parties, a man chooses the judge in his own cause. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was here a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin's recusal." Let's be honest; if he were going to recuse himself, he wouldn't have taken the $3 million in the first place, nor would it have been offered.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.