High Court to Hear Judicial Recusal Case

The U.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could have a major impact on the way judicial elections are funded. In Caperton v. Massey Coal Co. the court will step into the thorny issue of judicial recusal. The case centers on a ruling from West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals, which Politics magazine wrote on extensively back in October. The court’s decision to take this case is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it has largely steered clear of cases involving judicial ethics, and in taking this one it signals that the justices feel the need to weigh in on an issue that is increasingly plaguing state supreme courts. And second, it means that the high court will pass judgment on the case that has become the poster child for those who want to reform judicial elections. At the center of it all is the decision by West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin not to recuse himself from a case involving a major financial contributor to his 2004 election….

“[West Virginia’s] Supreme Court contest in 2004 saw millions in spending from special interests and business groups, and the race gained national notoriety for its nasty and expensive TV ads. But what happened once Republican Brent Benjamin won his seat on the court is the sort of thing that keeps the reformers in business.   One of Benjamin’s biggest boosters during his Supreme Court race was the CEO of Massey Energy, a Richmond, Va.-based company. Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent some $3.5 million to blanket the airwaves with TV ads slamming the incumbent, Warren McGraw, helping Benjamin win a seat on the court.   During that campaign, Massey Energy was appealing a $50 million jury verdict in a suit brought by a coal-producing company, Harman Mining. The suit—essentially a contract dispute—was waiting to be heard by the state Supreme Court of Appeals.   After an election that featured charges that McGraw coddled child molesters and other criminals during his time on the court, and a media blitz that saw ads run in the Washington, D.C. media market, Benjamin prevailed.   Following the November election, the court heard Massey’s appeal, with its newest justice on the bench. Harman Mining and others called for Benjamin to recuse himself to avoid a conflict of interest. He didn’t, and he cast the deciding vote that threw out the judgment against Massey.   A second controversy helped force a re-hearing of the appeal. Photos surfaced of the court’s chief justice, Elliot Maynard, vacationing in the French Riviera with Massey’s CEO. The resulting uproar was enough to get Maynard ousted from the court in a primary this past spring, and it heightened public interest in a court already shrouded in controversy.   Again, Benjamin ignored calls to recuse himself. He wrote in court documents that there was no reason to suggest that he couldn’t rule fairly and impartially. And again, he cast the deciding vote that threw out the $50 million judgment.  

The Supreme Court will decide whether or not Benjamin should have recused himself from the case--a decision that could force state courts to mandate recusal standards for justices. What might it mean for the hundreds of state judicial contests that have become increasingly ruled by special interest money? Former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who will argue the case before the high court on behalf of mine owner Hugh Caperton, thinks it could mean speial interest groups will have less of an incentive to pump money into these races. In the long run that could drastically alter the landscape of modern judicial contests. Shane D'Aprile is web editor at Politics magazine. sdaprile@politicsmagazine.com

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