Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Judicial Ethics for Dummies

by Pa Rock
Court Reporter

"An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."--Simon Cameron

Today the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Caperton v. Massey, a case so simple in its logic that my nine-year-old grandson could hear it after breakfast and make a sensible decision before the early recess. But the Supreme Court, being the Supreme Court, is apparently closely divided - 5 to 4 one way or the other - on what would be a slam dunk in any traffic court.

A decade or so ago Harman Mining, a modest West Virginia coal mining operation, had a lucrative contract with a large steel manufacturing company in Pittsburg, PA. Things were going fine, according to Hugh Caperton, the owner of Harman Mining, until his contract was hijacked by the nation's fourth largest coal mining company, Massey Energy. Harman Mining took Massey Energy to Court and won an astounding judgement of $50 million. The decision was promptly appealed to the district level where it was upheld.

Massey Energy then appealed to the Supreme Court of West Virginia. A major Massey stockholder who regards himself as a warrior for the business class, did not want to see his company risk competing in an impartial judicial setting, and decided to stack the deck. The stockholder, who had been paid millions by Massey over the years, targeted one particular Justice whom he believed would be unfavorable toward Massey. He put up a puppet candidate and smeared the sitting Justice with attacks so vile they would have shamed Karl Rove. One rumor generated by the smear machine was that the Justice had helped to turn a pedophile loose in the public schools. The stockholder spent over $3 million and was able to get his man elected. Not surprisingly, the new Justice cast the deciding vote not once, but twice, to throw out that $50 million verdict. The stockholder's money had been well spent indeed!

That same stockholder, described in news articles as "a large man with small eyes that betray nothing," was later spotted with another West Virginia Supreme Court Justice in Monte Carlo. When ABC News asked him about that gambling junket, he shoved a cameraman and suggested that someone was "liable to get shot" if reporters didn't mind their own beeswax. (Gotta love those good ole boys!)

The stockholder who spent three million dollars in a West Virginia judicial decision had this to say about the allegations that he had bought a judge:

"I've been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don't stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years. So I would never go out and spend money to try to gain favor with a politician. Eliminating a bad politician makes sense. Electing somebody hoping he's going to be in your favor doesn't make any sense at all."

Malarkey! The stockholder's judge stayed bought. That is one ethical rascal!

But drama aside, thirty-nine states elect the judges to their Supreme Courts, and judges at some level are elected in nearly every jurisdiction in America. The question before the U.s. Supreme Court is real and it is vital. Can justice be bought? Unfortunately, at least the four most conservative justices seem to see no problem with judges accepting huge political contributions and then helping to decide cases that involve their sugar daddies.

1 comment:

xobekim said...

When I first heard about this case my gut reaction fairly well reflected your posting. But you know how inquisitive I can be.

The briefs for the parties are found on the Supreme Court site. Petitioner filed an orginal brief and a reply brief. Respondent filed their response brief.
The are online under merit briefs for February. I know it was March, but I found it in February, listed as March 3rd. That site is:

The argument seems to be centered on actual vs. probable bias.

The question is: what does the Fourteenth Amendment require?

You will also find 13 amicus briefs filed by friends of the Court. 10 of those were in support of the Petitioners Caperton, Harman Mining, and Sovereign Sales. 4 were in support of Massey Coal. 2 were in favor of neither party.

The first of those, from the Conference of Chief Justices, urged the Court to issue an expansive decision outline going beyond the actual bias or pecuniary interest standards. They want to understand the constitutional criteria for disqualification

The second of those was for the Supreme Court of Louisiana. They urged the U.S. Supreme Court to give no credence to a discredited law review article from Tulane University School of Law.

I think the standard is and should remain that the Court is to avoid the appearance of impropriety.