The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments next Tuesday in a case involving coal-mining CEO Don Blankenship who spent some $3 million to help a candidate win a seat on West Virginia’s high court back in 2004. Once on the bench, Justice Brent Benjamin twice cast the deciding vote to throw out a $50 million jury verdict against Blankenship’s company.
Over the past week a number of media outlets have taken notice of the case including the New York Times, which got a rare interview with the man at the center of the West Virginia controversy—Massey’s CEO.
Politics magazine detailed the controversy this past October just as a battle for another two open seats on West Virginia’s high court was raging and amid efforts to reform the process of judicial elections in a number of states.
The question before the Supreme Court on March 3 is whether Benjamin should have recused himself from the case. The court’s decision could greatly impact the way in which judicial races are funded. Right now the vast majority of the money comes in the form of large independent expenditures from special interests.
From the New York Times:
The Massey case comes as debate rages in other states over the political involvement of judicial candidates and elected judges already on the bench. A federal judge in Wisconsin last week ruled that judges in that state are free to join a political party, back other candidates for office, and solicit campaign contributions personally (something judicial candidates in the vast majority of states aren’t permitted to do).
Lawyers for Massey suggest that the case is a Trojan horse whose real intent is to do away with judicial elections because any spending in such elections is suspect. “Any impartiality concerns raised by campaign spending are inherent in the state’s decision to hold judicial elections,” James Bopp Jr. wrote in a brief supporting Massey for the James Madison Center for Free Speech.
The judge ruled that prohibitions against such political activities “do little to advance an independent judiciary and violate judges' First Amendment rights to free speech.”
“Up until now there has at least been the arm’s length appearance of non-partisanship,” says Brandon Scholz, a political strategist who has worked judicial races in Wisconsin in the past. “This ruling takes that away all together. I think it probably makes things worse.”
Wisconsin’s Chief Justice Shirley Abramson, who is in the middle of a reelection campaign, told the AP she has no plans to declare her political affiliation or personally solicit campaign contributions. No word yet from her chief opponent though.
“I make radio and TV ads, but I don’t think we should be electing these judges,” says David Browne, who heads the Democratic Judicial Campaign Committee. “Campaigns come down to advertising, and advertising comes down to money … I’m happy to take a pay cut to improve this system.”
Shane D’Aprile is senior editor at Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org