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    Tom Teepen: Balancing money and justice




    If the courts aren't telling you want you want to hear, why not just buy a judge who seems likely to change the tune?

    In an especially egregious case of big money at play in what is supposed to be justice, Don Blankenship, chief executive of A.T. Massey Coal Co. in West Virginia, spent $3 million to defeat a state Supreme Court judge, Warren McGraw, and elect in his place Brent Benjamin. And sure enough, Benjamin was in the 3-2 majority that overturned a $50 million award that lower courts had granted a small coal company, which had claimed that fraud by Massey had put it out of business.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has now ruled that even if no specific judicial misconduct is charged or found -- and none was in this matter -- where extraordinarily large sums are involved, judges should recuse themselves from cases involving political contributors.

    The court defaulted to its common 5-4 split over the matter. Isn't impartial justice supposed to be a principle of liberals and conservatives alike? It is, but hard-core conservatism has increasingly bought into the proposition that money doesn't just talk but should be constitutionally sheltered under free-speech rights.

    Hence the Republican opposition to restraints on political contributions in partisan politics and hence, too, this latest high court split, with swing conservative Anthony Kennedy joining the liberals.

    Kennedy emphasized the exceptional nature of the campaign-funding intrusion in the West Virginia case and held that ordinary political contributions should not be similarly suspect, but Chief Justice John Roberts, in dissent, predicts gushers of appeals. He is not necessarily alarmist.

    Just what is an extraordinary amount? Can it be bid up? Where specific litigants may not be buying in, what about the disproportionate influence well-heeled special interests can buy?

    Maybe the electorate could become its own special interest.

    TOM TEEPEN, COX NEWSPAPERS
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