Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

556 U.S. 868, 129 S. Ct. 2252 (2009)



The Due Process Clause incorporates the common-law rule that a judge must recuse himself when he has a direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest in a case. This rule reflects the maxim that no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. The United States Supreme Court has identified additional instances which, as an objective matter, require recusal. These are circumstances in which experience teaches that the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.


Hugh Caperton sued A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. (Massey) for tortious interference and fraudulent misrepresentation. The trial court in West Virginia ruled against the company’s favor and found it liable for $50 million. An appeal was entertained by the Supreme Court of West Verginia; however, prior to hearing, Caperton asked if Justice Benjamin could inhibit himself from the proceedings. He said that since Massey’s CEO donated $3 million to Justice Benjamin’s campaign to win a seat on the Supreme Court of Appeals, his participation would have a “constitutionally unacceptable appearance of impropriety.” This was, however, denied. The Supreme Court on Appeals, reversed the trial court ruling and ordered the case to be dismissed.


Can a judge's failure to inhibit himself constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment?




The court held that Justice Benjamin’s interest had a “risk of actual bias” in this case, which must be viewed under “a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness.” This risk exists where a judge, as in this case, has a “direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest.” It was thus apparent to the court that without inhibiting himself, Justice Benjamin would review a judgment that cost his biggest donor’s company approximately $50 million. Thus, it was held that the probability of actual bias in such a circumstance rose to an unconstitutional level.

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