William & Mary Law Review


In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., decided in 2009, the Supreme Court held for the first time that conduct related to a judicial election campaign violated a litigant’s right to procedural due process because the opposing litigant had contributed an inordinate amount of money to the campaign of one of the justices ruling on the case. The due process danger recognized in Caperton rests on a fear of retrospective gratitude—that is, the fear that the Justice would decide his contributor’s case differently because he was grateful for the litigant’s generous support. The Court’s focus on retrospective gratitude is simultaneously overinclusive and underinclusive. It is overinclusive because it proves far too much: all judges—even federal judges protected by Article III—owe their selection to someone, whether it is a president or a senator, and that has never been deemed to threaten their independence. Yet the due process rule that derives from the decision is also underinclusive, because it makes no reference to the real due process danger of state court elections. This Article argues that the key constitutional problem with the selection of state court judges is for the most part not the initial selection process, but rather the use of majoritarian processes (either retention elections or gubernatorial appointment) to determine judicial retention. It is in this context that all of the constitutional concerns about judicial independence converge because this is the context in which the very real threat to decisional independence arises. A judge’s fears that deciding a particular case in a particular manner could threaten her continued employment could easily skew the decision from a neutral decision grounded in the judge’s independent assessment of the facts and law. This Article argues that life tenure, or, at the very least, some form of formal term limit is required by the Due Process Clause to assure constitutionally required judicial independence. As radical as this recommendation may be, we argue that there is no other way to assure the appearance or reality of fairness, both of which lie at the core of the due process guarantee.