Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

PETITIONER: Hugh Caperton
RESPONDENT: A. T. Massey Coal Co.
LOCATION: Port of Valdez

DOCKET NO.: 08-22
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Nov 14, 2008
ARGUED: Mar 03, 2009
DECIDED: Jun 08, 2009

Mr. Andrew L. Frey - on behalf of the respondents
Theodore B. Olson - on behalf of the petitioners

Facts of the case

In October 1998, Hugh Caperton filed suit against A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. (Massey) for tortious interference, fraudulent misrepresentation, and fraudulent concealment. A state trial court in West Virginia rendered judgment against Massey and found it liable for $50 million in damages. The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia granted review. However, prior to hearing, Mr. Caperton motioned for Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself. He argued that since Massey's C.E.O. had donated $3 million to Justice Benjamin's campaign to win a seat on the Supreme Court of Appeals, Justice Benjamin's participation would present a "constitutionally unacceptable appearance of impropriety." The motion was denied. In a 3-2 decision with Justice Benjamin voting in the majority, the Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and ordered it to dismiss the case. After its decision, the court granted Mr. Caperton's motion for rehearing, but once again denied his motion for Justice Benjamin to recuse himself. On rehearing, the court maintained in a 3-2 decision that the trial court should be reversed and the case dismissed. It reasoned that a forum selection clause in a contract between the parties made the trial court in West Virginia an improper venue. It also concluded that because the parties had previously adjudicated the dispute in a Virginia state trial court, the doctrine of res judicata did not allow this case to be retried.


Did Justice Brent Benjamin's failure to recuse himself from participation in a case where one of the parties donated $3 million to his election campaign violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment?

Media for Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 03, 2009 in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 08, 2009 in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the Court in two cases this morning.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The first case to announce is Caperton versus A.T. Massey Coal Company, No. 08-22. The case concerns whether the Due Process Clause requires a judge to recuse himself when a person with a personal stake in the outcome of the case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case.

In 2002, a West Virginia jury in a state court returned the verdict that found respondent Massey Coal Company liable in a civil suit.

The jury awarded petitioner, Hugh Caperton $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Don Blankenship is Massey Coals' Chairman, President and CEO.

Massey Coal had been the defendant before the jury.

After the verdict -- before appeal, West Virginia held its 2004 judicial elections, knowing the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia would consider the appeal in this case.

Blankenship decided to support Brent Benjamin to replace an incumbent judgment on the state's highest court.

In total, Blankenship contributed some $3 million to get Benjamin elected.

And to provide some perspective, Blankenship's contributions were more than the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and three times the amount spent by Benjamin's own campaign committee.

Justice Benjamin won the election by 50,000 votes.

When the state court's highest court decided to hear Massey Coal's appeal, Caperton moved to disqualify now Justice Benjamin under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution based on the conflict clause by Blankenship's campaign involvement.

Justice Benjamin denied that motion.

And the state court ruled three-to-two in favor of Blankenship and Massey Coal with Justice Benjamin casting the deciding vote.

Then there was a petition for rehearing.

After two justices recuse themselves, the court granted rehearing.

Justice Benjamin though twice more refused to recuse himself.

The newly constituted court again voted three-to-two to overturn the $50 million jury verdict again with Justice Benjamin casting the deciding vote.

We granted certiorari to consider whether Justice Benjamin was constitutionally required to recuse himself.

We conclude and we now hold that his recusal was required by the constitution requirement of due process.

At the outset, we note that Justice Benjamin was careful to address the recusal motions and explained his reasons why disqualification was not in order.

He conducted -- Justice Benjamin conducted a probing inquiry into his actual motives and inclinations and he found none to be improper, and we do not question his subjective findings of impartially.

Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias.

Judge Benjamin properly undertook an extensive search for actual bias.

But as our prior cases have indicated, this is just one step in the judicial process.

Due process may sometimes require recusal whether or not actual bias exists or can be proved.

The difficulties of inquiring into actual bias and the fact that the inquiries often a private one simply underscore the need for objective rules.

Otherwise, there may be no adequate protection against the judge who simply misreads or misapprehends the real motives at work in deciding the case.

The judge's only inquiry into actual bias then is not one that the law can easily superintend or review. Of course actual bias if disclosed.

No doubt would be grounds for appropriate relief.

In lieu of exclusive reliance on that personal inquiry or another appellate review of the judge's determination respecting actual bias, the Due Process Clause has been implemented by objective standards that do not require proof of actual bias.