In a nutshell, the court ruled Monday that a West Virginia justice shouldn’t have participated in state court decisions overturning a $50 million judgment against Massey Coal, whose chief executive had been a major financial supporter of the justice’s campaign for office. The decision effectively creates a new constitutional recusal standard for judges who take contributions to fund their election campaigns.
So what does that mean for recusal cases here in Texas? There has been plenty of scrutiny in Texas of donations to justices of the Texas Supreme Court but no change to our current system of electing judges. But, we also elect our civil and criminal district court judges, county court judges, justices of the peace, and intermediate appellate court justices to name a few. Since 1995, donations to Judge’s campaigns have been limited to $5000 per family and $300,000 from political action committees. Meaning, a donation of $3 million dollars, as was the case in Massey Coal, is unlikely.
As long as campaigns are publicly financed there will always be allegations that donations lead to favorable rulings from the Texas Supreme Court on down to the justice of the peace. The question remains does anyone actually care? The solutions usually suggested are publicly financed elections, non-partisan elections, or retention elections. It seems unlikely that the Massey Coal opinion will lead to the critical mass necessary to provoke such a change. So for now the best rule of thumb is to make sure your donations to the presiding judge are equal to what the other party or lawyer on the other side of the docket has made.