There’s been a fresh flurry of op-ed commentaries recently about the Brent Benjamin-Don Blankenship connection, and whether Chief Justice Benjamin should have recused himself from the big Harman Mining case after Blankenship bankrolled Benjamin’s election to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Last week, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones took the Gazette to task for an editorialÂ that called on lawmakers to “reform [West Virginia’s] weak judicial code that lets judges brush aside requests that they step down in questionable cases. “
Mayor Jones wrote that the Gazette’s bias was showing, alleging the paper has criticized coal money that helped put Benjamin in office, but not labor money that supported his opponent, Justice Warren McGraw, or Justice Larry Starcher (Jones and Benjamin are Republicans; McGraw and Starcher are Democrats).
On Saturday, the Daily Mail’s half of the Gazette-Mail editorial page carried a commentary by Al Emch, a longtime lawyer over at Jackson Kelly, who has frequently represented Massey and other coal companies. Emch laments media coverage of the case, saying journalists have failed to provide “analysis of the substance of the issues involved and the reasoning of our court in ruling on them.”
Then in today’s Gazette, the editorial page includes an op-ed commentary by Howard Swint, a Charleston commercial property broker and sometimes political candidate. Swint opines that, “This is a watershed case that compels the U.S. Supreme Court to consider not only the merits of the Harmon case but also the far-reaching and overarching forces that have given rise to the state’s political landscape. “
Swint quotes at length from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ 1969 book, Points of Rebellion, in which Douglas observed about West Virginia:
Â There are “colonies” within the United States. West Virginia is in a sense a microcosm of such a colony. It is partially owned and effectively controlled by coal, power, and railroad companies, which in turn are controlled by vast financial interests of the East and Middle West. The state legislature answers to the beck and call of those interests. Strip mining, the curse of several States, has easy going in West Virginia. Black lung cancer takes an awful toll among miners. The Establishment gave in a little and allowed the legislature to pass a sort of a law under which a man totally disabled from black lung cancer gets, at the most, $2500 a year â€” guaranteed to keep him at the poverty level. The Establishment controls, of course, the agencies and commissions that administer the welfare, compensation, and unemployment systems of the State. The “mother” interests that own the wealth of West Virginia appear secure. But under the surface there is violence boiling.
I actually looked those quotes up, because it wasn’t clear from Swint’s commentary whether they came from a court opinion or some other writing by Justice Douglas.
For anyone who is interested in understanding the Harman Mining recusal issues in more detail, the West Virginia Business Litigation blog, by Jeffrey Mehalic, has been posting the briefs as they are filed.
And I also commend to your attention Justice Benjamin’s own concurring opinion, in which he explained his reasons for not removing himself from the case (Starting at the bottom of page 17).