Monday, June 08, 2009

Supreme Court: W.Va. justice should've quit case of coal firm whose CEO spent $3 million for him

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a justice of West Virginia's highest court should have recused himself from a case involving Massey Energy Co., the largest coal producer in Appalachia, because the company's top executive had financed a campaign to have the justice replace an incumbent after the initial lower-court verdict.

"By a 5-4 vote, the justices held that West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin should have removed himself from deciding the case because Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship (left) had spent $3 million to help him get elected to the court," James Vicini reports for Reuters. The opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote in big cases; he was joined by the court's liberals, while the four conservatives dissented.

It marked the first time the high court had called for a judge's recusal in a case related to judicial elections; Kennedy wrote that there was no question about it because the facts of the case were “extreme by any measure.” He said there was “a serious, objective risk of actual bias” that threatened the plaintiff's rights to due process. “Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when — without the other parties’ consent — a man chooses the judge in his own cause.”

Chief Justice John Roberts said he "would give the voters of West Virginia more credit than that," and said Benjamin won the election comfortably (a margin of 6.6 percenatge points). He predicted that the decision “will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be,” doing much more to “erode public confidence in judicial impartiality” than a ruling in Massey's favor would have. Roberts listed "dozens of questions that he said the majority had raised without really answering, and that the lower courts will have to wrestle with," David Stout reports for The New York Times. (Read more)

Kennedy said Massey and its allies who filed friend-of-the-court briefs (there were 16 total, on both sides) cited "no other instance involving judicial campaign contributions that presents a potential for bias comparable to the circumstances in this case." On the Law Blog of The Wall Street Journal, Nathan Koppel reports judicial reaction to the decision is favorable. (Read more)

The court ordered the West Virginia court to reconsider "its 2008 ruling that reversed a 2002 verdict by the Boone County circuit court to award $50 million to Harman Mining Corp. and its president, Hugh Caperton," Reuters reports. The court's vote on that ruling, and other in the case, were 3-2, but Massey said it was confident that a replacement justice, to be named by the other four, would rule likewise. (Read more) UPDATE, June 10: Blankenship issued a statement replying to the decision. For a nicely told story of what a long, strange trip led to it, read this story by Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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