Though the Supreme Court refused to hear a Don't Ask, Don't Tell challenge today, the more politically significant decision came in a five-to-four ruling that will probably change the way that judges are elected in the 39 states where jurists are held accountable by voters.

The court's center-left majority held that an "independent" $3 million bundled contribution orchestrated by Don Blankenship, the CEO of a coal mining company, to Judge Brent Benjamin -- one that helped get Benjamin elected -- appeared to be directly related to a case that Benjamin, as a newly elected State Supreme Court Justice in West Virginia, would preside over. The case involved a $50 million fraud verdict against the company. $50 million v. $3 million..... not hard to see why Blankenship would try his hand at electing a judge who would be congenial to his interests.

As Rick Hasen notes, the Supreme Court has been very reluctant to involve itself in state judicial elections until now, striking down attempts to limit contributions, donations and positions statements.

The facts in 'Caperton v. Massey' gave the majority a reason to find that

"....there is a serious risk of actual bias--based on objective and reasonable perceptions--when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent. The inquiry centers on the contribution's relative size in comparison to the total amount of money contributed to the campaign,the total amount spent in the election, and the apparent effect such contribution had on the outcome of the election."

In other words, there was reasonable evidence to infer that the company knew that the particular judge would handle the case, and because the contribution was so large, it crossed a threshold marking the boundary of democracy from that of an appearance of corruption. If this sounds like the plot of a John Grisham novel of recent vintage, you're right.

Judicial elections are going to change, now. How much? Don't know. That's one worry of the minority; Chief Justice Chief Roberts noted that the majority's inability to articulate a clear standard of what constitutions the appearance of corruption might mean that 40 different states adopt 40 different laws, which would mean that his court would probably be asked to figure out which ones were constitutional at some point in the future.

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