As judicial campaign spending increases, there is growing concern that judges step aside from hearing cases that involve campaign supporters or issues where the judge made a campaign pledge to rule a certain way once elected to the bench.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the seminal opinion regarding judicial recusal, Caperton v. Massey. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, forced a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice to step aside in a case involving a supporter who spent more than $3 million to elect him. This landmark case established that a litigant has a core due process interest in a judge not tainted with a "probability of bias."
Much more information about this landmark case is available at the Justice at Stake site.
Other Recusal Cases Of Note
On June 9, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Williams v. Pennsylvania, an appeal from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concerning judicial bias in a death penalty case. The Court ruled, in a 5-3 opinion written by Justice Kennedy, that due process was violated when Chief Justice Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to recuse himself from Terrence Williams' post-conviction appeal of a death sentence that Castill had approved as district attorney before he became a judge. The Court found a "serious risk of actual bias" when a judge had prior personal significant involvement in a case as a prosecutor. Oral argument was heard on February 29. This is the first major case involving judicial recusal to reach the Supreme Court since Caperton v. Massey in 2009.
In 1992, an Arizona jury convicted Richard Hurles of killing librarian Kay Blanton. Hurles was subsequently sentenced to death by Judge Ruth Hilliard, an Arizona state court judge. Hurles appealed the case, arguing Judge Hilliard was biased against him, a claim that stemmed from Judge Hilliard’s refusal to grant Hurles a second court-appointed lawyer for his capital trial. The death sentence was upheld by Arizona state courts and a federal trial court, but when the case reached the U.S. Appellate Court for the Ninth Circuit, the judges sided with Hurles 2 to 1, remanding the case to a lower court to review Judge Hilliard’s actions and determine if she presided over the case fairly. The Ninth Circuit directed the lower court to consider whether the case was tainted by judicial bias, or whether the defendant received a fair trial in a fair tribunal. The Ninth Circuit majority was particularly concerned with the trial judge's resolution, without an evidentiary hearing, of a motion seeking her recusal. The dissent warned that the majority's conclusion "is likely to work mischief by casting doubt on whether state and federal judges can ever appropriately make recusal decisions without first holding evidentiary hearings."
The Supreme Court dismissed the petition on June 3, 2014.