WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court made it easier yesterday to force elected judges off cases if they have accepted big campaign contributions.

In a closely watched case from West Virginia, the court ruled, 5-4, that "significant" campaign contributions or other electoral assistance posed a risk of "actual bias."

The ruling could trigger more demands for judges in 39 states with elected judges - including Pennsylvania, California, and Texas - to recuse themselves from cases in which their campaign contributions could create conflicts.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority: "There is a serious risk of actual bias . . . when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent."

Kennedy said the ruling in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. resulted from "extraordinary" circumstances that would not often be repeated. The case involved a coal company executive's spending $3 million to help elect West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin, who later voted to reverse a $50 million judgment against the company.

The money spent by Massey president Don Blankenship was more than three times the total amount spent by all of Benjamin's other supporters combined. Benjamin declined to recuse himself from the case; he wrote a long opinion explaining his decision to take part in it.

"Though not a bribe or criminal influence, Justice Benjamin would nevertheless feel a debt of gratitude to Blankenship for his extraordinary efforts to get him elected," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy was joined in the majority by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, and John Paul Stevens.

The four conservative dissenters warned that a flood of recusal motions and judicial challenges would result from the decision.

"This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote.

"It is an old cliche, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease," Roberts said. He was joined in dissent by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

Roberts enumerated 40 questions that he said were raised by the court's decision. For instance: How big a contribution is too big? Does it matter how much money is at stake in the underlying case?

The questions could become particularly pointed this year and next, as state Supreme Court candidates run for election in states including Pennsylvania, Idaho, and Kentucky. In some states, judicial candidates run against one another. In other states, Supreme Court candidates periodically face retention elections.

Next year, for instance, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George is due to face a retention election. In his 1998 retention election, antiabortion groups financed an unsuccessful campaign against him because of his rulings.

In many counties, Superior Court judges, too, run for election.

"This is extremely significant," Adam Skaggs, a counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute, said of the ruling.

"It's a strong signal to the courts that money should not be used to influence justice."

Skaggs predicted that states would draft new rules for judicial recusals. States, for instance, could set contribution amounts that should trigger recusals.

The group Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says that judges are elected in 39 states and that candidates for the highest state courts have raised more than $168 million since 2000.

Third-party groups, often corporations with business before the courts, spent millions of additional dollars on advertising and other efforts.

Kennedy stressed that "not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal."

Kennedy focused on the "contribution's relative size in comparison to the total amount of money contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election, and the apparent effect such contributions had on the outcome of the election."

Read the justices' opinions in the judicial-ethics case via http://go.philly.com/judges.EndText

This article includes information from the Washington Post.