Calif. bill would force recusal of judges

John O'Brien May 17, 2010, 3:00pm


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - The California Assembly recently passed a bill that would force judges to recuse themselves from the cases of certain campaign contributors.

California judges must already recuse themselves from cases in which they have a financial interest, but the bill, passed by the Assembly May 6, would require recusal from cases involving contributors who gave more than $1,500.

The legislation comes after a Commission for Impartial Courts report that recommended the idea.

Assemblymember Mike Feuer introduced the legislation in February.

"This bill would provide for the disqualification of a judge who has received a contribution in excess of $1,500 from a party or counsel in a matter that is before the court, and either the contribution was received in support of the judge's last election, if the last election was within the last six years, or the contribution was received in anticipation of an upcoming election," the bill says.

California Supreme Court justices are up for election every 12 years. The bill is now before the state Senate.

"The bill would further disqualify a judge based on a contribution of a lesser amount under specified circumstances. The bill would require the judge to disclose any contribution from a party or counsel in a matter that is before the court that is required to be reported, as specified, even if the amount would not require disqualification under these provisions."

Tuesday, the Assembly Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the role of campaign contributions in judicial elections. Justice Ming Chin is one of the panelists.

A recent publication by the Federalist Society explored how states are reacting to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself from a $50 million case involving a campaign supporter.

Hugh Caperton's case involved a coal supply agreement. A 3-2 decision in 2007 in favor of Massey Energy overturned the verdict before Caperton complained about the relationship between Massey CEO Don Blankenship and then-Justice Spike Maynard.

The two, lifelong friends, had been photographed together in Monaco, where they claim they had been vacationing separately at the same time.

In March 2008, the justices (minus Maynard) again voted 3-2 in favor of Massey, and Caperton complained that Justice Brent Benjamin shouldn't have participated because Blankenship spent millions of dollars supporting his 2004 campaign.

Blankenship created a 527 group that supported Benjamin's candidacy.

The issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2009, and it ruled in a 5-4 vote that Benjamin should have recused himself, setting the stage for a third decision.

Massey was victorious in a 4-1 vote. That decision, like the other two, focused on a forum-selection clause in a coal supply contract between the two parties. It said all disputes arising from the contract must be brought in a county in Virginia.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at

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