All about Benjamin — and Blankenship

March 1, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

benjamin08.jpgThere’s been plenty said and written about whether West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin has a conflict of interest because of the millions of dollars Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent helping him get elected in 2004.

The whole thing comes to a head this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Tuesday.

The Gazette’s own Paul J. Nyden has covered the controversy extensively, and the issue has been the subject of recent stories in The New York Times and USA Today.blankenshipx1.jpgMore than one commentator has noted the similarities with John Grisham’s thriller, The Appeal. The American Bar Association Journal published a lengthy piece on the matter, and it has been covered in The Economist.

The National Law Journal also has a new analysis of the case.

Dr. Nyden, by the way, will be in D.C. for the oral argument and be reporting on it in the Gazette. And in a preview in today’s Sunday Gazette-Mail, one legal expert described the case to Nyden this way:

This growing lack of confidence in the judicial branch has almost become a crisis in the American legal profession. Was there ever a case or time, when an individual’s contributions to a judge or a judicial candidate created such an appearance of potential bias? Was there ever a time when a failure of a judge to recuse himself or herself – because of the appearance of impropriety, not because someone was actually paid off – crossed the line? If this isn’t such a case, there is no such case.

[UPDATE:  Larry Messina at the AP also moved a preview of the arguments.  Among other things, he notes:

The appeal has become a rallying point for an eclectic array of groups — from Wal-Mart to government watchdog Common Cause and dozens of former jurists — all decrying the specter of bias conjured by Blankenship’s spending.]

hughcaperton.jpgJust to review the facts: In August 2002, a Boone County jury determined Massey illegally terminated and high-jacked a coal-supply contract from Hugh Caperton and his company, Harman Mining. That verdict is now worth $82 million, with interest.

As the case moved toward appeals, Blankenship contributed $3 million to help unseat incumbent Justice Warren McGraw in his race against Benjamin. Benjamin won.

In November 2007, Benjamin joined Maynard to vote in favor of Massey in the 3-2 ruling overturning the Boone County jury verdict.

blank1.jpg

The case eventually returned to the state Supreme Court, but this time, Maynard stepped down, because nationally publicized photographs showed Maynard and Blankenship having drinks and dinner together on the French Riviera in July 2006. Benjamin declined to recuse himself, and in April the court affirmed the earlier decision in favor of Massey, 3-2.

Readers who want to learn more about the legal arguments in the case can find all of the briefs filed by both sides — and lots of interested parties — online here. That Web site, sponsored by the American Bar Association, describes the issued presented to the Court this way:

Justice Brent Benjamin of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia refused to recuse himself from the appeal of the $50 million jury verdict in this case, even though the CEO of the lead defendant spent $3 million supporting his campaign for a seat on the court–more than 60% of the total amount spent to support Justice Benjamin’s campaign– while preparing to appeal the verdict against his company. After winning election to the court, Justice Benjamin cast the deciding vote in the court’s 3-2 decision overturning that verdict. The question presented is whether Justice Benjamin’s failure to recuse himself from participation in his principal financial supporter’s case violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

A transcript of the oral argument should be available the same day at this site. Recordings aren’t released until the end of each court term, but are eventually available here.

SCOTUSblog and SCOTUS Wiki are also great sources of information on this and other Supreme Court cases.

5 Responses to “All about Benjamin — and Blankenship”

  1. BAC says:

    Just remember, this can cut both ways. For decades, the unions and plaintiffs’ lawyers have been buying judicial seats all over the state. They have been the main funding source and advocates for those positions. If you start requiring recusal, based on whether the litigants before you contributed to your campaign or helped get you elected, that’s an awful lot of judges who won’t be able to hear cases. Read Al Emch’s recent column in The State Journal for a more lengthy discussion of this issue, if you want a fair and balanced view.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    There’s a commentary by Al Emch that was published in the Daily Mail a few weeks back, as well as criticism of the Gazette’s stance on the case by Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.

    Links to both are available via the Coal Tattoo blog, here:
    http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2009/02/09/all-about-benjamin/

  3. Jimbo says:

    Jennifer Bundy’s letter to the Gazette published a couple of days ago sheds a different light on Nyden’s articles. If her take is accurate, then Nyden may have some trouble getting information from the “top” people he used to get information from.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Here is the link to the letter Jimbo refers to:
    http://wvgazette.com/Opinion/Letters/200902280469

  5. Terri Cavi says:

    Bravo for the United States Supreme Court. They made the right decision regarding Justice Benjamin. He (and questionably others) should have recused themselves on the basis of bias. The people of West Virginia are intellegent, treat them as such.

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