Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s political activism might not have only cost his company a $50 million judgment, it gave the U.S. Supreme Court the opportunity to bestow on federal judges unprecedented oversight of judges who must now recuse themselves from a case, “if there is a probability of bias.
Blankenship spent $3 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals. At the time, Massey Coal was appealing a $50 million jury verdict for having driven a competitor, Harman Mining, into bankruptcy.
A jury had concluded that Massey drove Harman Mining out of business by acquiring the sole buyer of Harman’s coal and then sharply reducing coal purchases. In 2002 the jury awarded $50 million to Harman and its owner Hugh Caperton.
The case would come before the five-justice West Virginia Supreme Court twice. In the first ruling, the high court vacated a jury’s verdict on jurisdictional issues. However, Benjamin refused to recuse himself in both the first and second cases, where the ruling favored Massey.
Harman argued that Justice Benjamin had a clear conflict of interest when he presided over the appeal of their case against Massey Energy. Benjamin wrote in court documents that no evidence suggested he cannot be fair and impartial.
Ironically, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliot Maynard lost his re-election bid last year after photographs surfaced showing he and Blankenship had spent several days together while on vacation in the French Riviera.
In the case Caperton v. Massey, Harman asked the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the West Virginia Supreme Court verdict.
In the 5-4 decision released Monday, Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court, who wrote, “Our decision today addresses an extraordinary situation where the Constitution requires recusal.”
“The question presented is whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated when one of the justices denied a recusal motion,” Kennedy explained. Legal experts said the decision creates a new constitutional standard for judges who take contributions to fund their election campaigns.
The justices reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia with the case remanded for further proceedings.
The Massey ruling may also convince state legislatures to consider more serious reforms of judicial elections and judicial selection in general. However, the Wall Street Journal asserted, “The cost of Mr. Kennedy’s regrettable opinion will be a parade of Caperton motions, and a long shadow of doubt on courts across the country.”
However, in his dissent Chief Justice John Roberts argued, “The Court’s new ‘rule’ provides no guidance to judges and litigants about when recusal will be constitutionally required. This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be.”
Roberts raised 40 questions that he feels courts will now have to consider when determining if a judge is biased and should recuse himself from a case. He argued “today’s opinion requires state and federal judges simultaneously to act as political scientists (why did candidate X win the election?), economists (was the financial support disproportionate), and psychologists (is there likely to be a debt of gratitude?).”
In a statement published Monday, Harman Mining Company attorney David Fawcett said, “My clients have fought a 10 year battle against a man who promised to spend millions of dollars to tie them up in court challenges if they pursued the case. …If the Court had allowed this case to stand, then people with money would have been granted a license to contribute vast sums of money to elect judges to effect results in specific cases.”
“We now look forward to re-arguing our case before the West Virginia Supreme Court and achieving justice for not only Hugh Caperton but the many miners and others who were hurt by Massey’s unscrupulous business tactics and greed,” Fawcett concluded.
Massey Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey said, “We are confident that the Harman case was properly decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court initially and believe that any new examination of the same facts and same laws by new justices should yield the same result as before.”