Common Cause statement on the Caperton v. Massey Supreme Court case

Contact: John Sparks

Judge Receives $3 Million in Campaign Money from Defendant:How is That Different from What Congress Does Every Day?

The U.S. Supreme Court today hears arguments in the Caperton v. Massey case from West Virginia. Common Cause believes this case presents an example of a blatant conflict of interest. Hugh Caperton won a $50 million jury verdict against Massey Coal, which appealed the case to the state Supreme Court. Massey CEO Don Blankenship then gave a $3 million campaign contribution in support of Brent Benjamin in his race for state Supreme Court Justice; Benjamin won the race, did not recuse himself from the Caperton case, and cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 ruling to overturn the $50 million verdict against Massey. The immediate question is whether Benjamin should have recused himself in the case.

The damage goes far beyond Hugh Caperton. The erosion of public trust after such an egregious conflict of interest is not isolated to this case, nor to the judiciary branch alone.

“As citizens exit the Supreme Court today, they would do well to look across the street at the U.S. Capitol,” said Bob Edgar, President & CEO of Common Cause. “In every race for every seat in the Congress, members take money from a variety of interests who will be directly affected by the laws formed in Congress. That conflict of interest is just as deeply embedded as in today’s Caperton case, and goes on day after day and year after year.”

Edgar continued, “Is there a substantive difference between a justice receiving money from a coal company executive whose case he will decide, and a Senator receiving money from an army of coal executives just before he casts a vote on a carbon emissions bill? Not in our mind, nor in the public eye.”

Since 2000, the energy industry has contributed just over $300 million in campaign contributions to Congress, including $74 million in 2008 alone. The coal mining industry alone has contributed $15 million to Congress since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As the nation’s media await the Supreme Court’s decision in this conflict of interest case, their attention will be drawn to a system in many states where judges run for office and seek contributions from interests, including businesses and trial lawyers, who will very likely appear before them in later cases. The American people will rightly observe the inherent conflict of interest for judges to seek funds from those who appear in their courts, but this kind of pay-to-play in judicial campaigns is no different from that of campaigns for members of Congress.