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Supreme Court Hears Conflict Of Interest Case

POSTED: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 4:16pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 2:23pm

Supreme Court hears landmark argument regarding elected judges' conflict of interest...

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case that began with a battle between two West Virginia coal companies and could affect every elected judge in the land.

The central question is whether State Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from a case involving the coal giant that helped him win a court seat by launching a three million dollar campaign to unseat his opponent.

Benjamin voted to overturn a $50 million judgment against Massey Coal, which crushed a much smaller rival.

Hugh Caperton lost his case and, he argues, his right to due process.

"Was wondering how it was going to be a fair trial when I saw a judge that had received three million dollars," said Massey Coal owner, Hugh Caperton.

Massey's attorney, Andrew Frey, argued that judicial bias should be covered by state law and ethics rules.

"The tradition has been that judges are presumed to be impartial as a constitutional matter. That presumption is very difficult to overcome," said Frey.

Justice Antonin Scalia noted that Supreme Court justices routinely decide cases involving the presidents who appointed them.

But Justice David Souter questioned whether it's time to define when a judge should step aside.

Caperton's attorney Ted Olsen says this case isn't about impartiality, it's about perception.

"If an ordinary person other than you would think that, well that justice, or that judge would have a hard time being fair, then that raises constitutional concerns," said Olsen.

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