The U.S. Supreme Court may take a case that would place campaign spending in judicial races in the spotlight. The court could announce sometime Monday whether it has granted cert in the case of Caperton v. Massey, a case that originated out of a 2004 race for a seat on West Virginia’s Supreme Court.

 

In the October issue of Politics I examine the modern state of judicial contests across the country—including the race from which the Massey case emanates. Here’s a slice…


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.

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.


The case pending cert before the court seeks to force a re-hearing of Harman Mining's appeal minus Justice Brent Benjamin on the bench. Former Bush administration solicitor general Ted Olson is aiding Harman Mining in its appeal to the Supreme Court. He thinks the case presents a clear conflict of interest. Here’s what he had to say in our October issue…

“This is not a left or a right issue. This is an issue of fairness, and the [Supreme] Court should hear this case … In this or any case, it’s impossible to prove for certain that the judge allowed a decision to be influenced. The question is under what circumstances would a reasonable person think the fairness of the judge could be in doubt?”


Olson thinks the case could have major ramifications for the way judicial elections are funded if the high court does decide to hear it. If the court's decision doesn't come Monday it is likely to come by the end of the week.


*UPDATE: The Supreme Court did not release its decision on cert for this case Monday. It doesn't mean the high court won't hear the case though. It's decision could come early next week.


Shane D'Aprile is web editor at Politics magazine sdaprile@politicsmagazine.com