The US Supreme Court yesterday ruled that elected judges must disqualify themselves from cases involving people who spent large sums to put them on the bench.
The 5-4 decision, is the first to say the Constitution's due process clause provided for regulating the role of money in judicial elections.
The decision ordered the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to recuse himself from a $50-million case against a coal company whose chief executive had spent $3 million on his election.
Including New York, 39 states elect at least some of their judges, and in recent years election campaigns, particularly for state supreme courts have grown increasingly nasty and expensive.
According to Justice at Stake, a group that tracks campaign spending election spends for state high courts have reached $200 million. Contributions from lawyers and litigants to election expenses have become common but judges consistently refrain from withdrawing themselves from cases involving donors.
Justice Anthony M Kennedy, writing the majority decision said that the Constitution called for disqualification of a judge in cases where an interested party's spending was likely to disproportionately influence a pending or imminent case.
However, according to the dissenting justices, the decision would undermine the confidence in the judiciary and also open the flood gates for baseless recusal motions.
The practice of election of judges is unique to the US. Federal judges as also justices of the US Supreme Court are however, appointed.
Meanwhile groups belonging to the legal establishment that have been pressing for disqualification of judges from in such cases have welcomed the decision.
''The court's decision is appropriately narrow but is nonetheless a huge victory for one of the most basic aspects of the rule of law: the right to a fair hearing,'' said James Sample, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
But groups opposed to such measures said Monday's decision had set an unworkable standard. They point out that the court had given no guidance on how judges are expected to interpret potential biases, and the ruling would therefore have a chilling effect on citizens engaging in independent speech.
But groups opposing campaign regulations on First Amendment grounds said Monday's decision created an unworkable standard.
According to Justice Kennedy, in the West Virginia case, chief justice Brent D Benjamin, the beneficiary of the coal company's spending twice ruled in the 3-2 majority decisions to throw out the $50 million jury verdict against the company, Massey Energy.
The plaintiffs in the case were some small mining companies that won the $50 million verdict in 2002.
They had claimed that they had been driven out of business through fraud committed by Massey whose chief executive, Don L Blankenship had spent $3 million in 2004 to defeat an incumbent justice, Warren R McGraw a Democrat. His opponent Benjamin, a Republican had been elected who is now the court's chief justice.