The high court found, in Caperton v. Massey, that a West Virginia judge should have recused himself from a case involving an executive who had spent $3 million to help elect the judge.
Here's how the Brennan Center for Justice described the issues in Caperton:
In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Supreme Court grappled with the question whether the fundamental right to a fair hearing before a neutral arbiter required disqualification of a judge in a case where one party to litigation had given extraordinary campaign contributions to the judge while the party's case was pending. Against a backdrop of a dramatic rise of special interest spending in judicial elections nationwide, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued before the Supreme Court on March 3 that the Constitution's due-process clause required a West Virginia Judge to recuse himself from a lawsuit involving an executive who spent $3 million to elect the judge. Those expenditures, which came at the same time the court was considering the executive's case, were more than all other contributions to the judge's election, combined.
Caperton was decided on a 5-4 vote, with the high court's right wing (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito) casting dissenting votes.
The Caperton case potentially had major implications for Alabama, and we have written about the case here and here.
Why does Caperton hit home here in Alabama? Consider our post from about three months ago:
If Governor Bob Riley had the kind of spine that Hugh Caperton possesses, an Alabama case on this very issue might be headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court. After all, a case in our state involving oil giant ExxonMobil makes the Caperton case look like a warm-up act.
In West Virginia, business interests helped overturn a verdict that ranged in the tens of millions of dollars. And that verdict would have benefitted an individual business. In Alabama, business interests helped ensure the reversal of a verdict of $3.6 BILLION--and that verdict was in favor of the State of Alabama and would have benefitted all of the state's citizens.
The Alabama Supreme Court, however, overturned the jury finding of fraud against ExxonMobil. The vote was 8-1, with the court's lone Democrat providing the dissent.
Scott Horton, of Harper's, reported that ExxonMobil interests had given $5.5 million to the campaigns of Republicans running for the Alabama Supreme Court. Looks like that turned out to be an excellent investment.
So did Bob Riley stand up for his constituents the way Hugh Caperton stood up for his company? Not on your life. The same business interests that bought the Alabama Supreme Court also helped put Riley in office. So the governor did not even seek a rehearing of the ExxonMobil ruling. And he certainly did not seek an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
That's why corruption on the West Virginia Supreme Court is in the national spotlight--and corruption on the Alabama Supreme Court is locked safely away in a Republican closet.
Yep, thanks to our Republican governor, who did not even bother trying to appeal the ExxonMobil ruling, business interests got away with a judicial heist in Alabama.
Will Alabama's GOP-dominated high court think twice the next time an ExxonMobil-type case comes before it? Will the Caperton decision change the game of buying judges on state supreme courts?