Readers might remember that in 2002 a Boone County jury awarded $50 million to Hugh Caperton, an executive with Harman Mining, a relatively small producer, who sued Massey, the nation’s fourth largest coal producer, disputing a lucrative coal supply contract. In January 2008, then West Virginia Chief Justice Elliot “Spike” Maynard decided to remove himself from the case after photos surfaced of the judge and Blankenship vacationing in the south of France (See News, Coal Age, February 2008, p. 8). The court was scheduled to hear the pending reconsideration motion and it now had to appoint a replacement and that duty fell to the next in line for that post, Justice Benjamin. Before Massey filed its appeal, Caperton moved to disqualify Justice Benjamin under the Due Process Clause and the State’s Code of Judicial Conduct, based on the conflict caused by Blankenship’s campaign involvement. Justice Benjamin denied the motion, indicating that he found no bias. The court then reversed the $50 million verdict. During the rehearing process, Justice Benjamin refused twice more to recuse himself.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the West Virginia Supreme Court must revisit its 2008 ruling that reversed the 2002 verdict. In its briefing, the U.S. Supreme Court said “the fact remains that Blankenship’s extraordinary contributions were made at a time when he had a vested stake in the outcome. Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when—without the consent of the other parties—a man chooses the judge in his own cause. And applying this principle to the judicial election process, there was here a serious, objective risk of actual bias that required Justice Benjamin’s recusal.”
Massey issued a statement. “While we are disappointed in the outcome of the Court’s close vote, our outlook about the ultimate resolution of this legal matter remains positive. 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,” said Shane Harvey, Massey vice president and General Counsel.
Then Blankenship issued a statement, on his personal letterhead, meaning that his views might necessarily be supported by Massey Energy. He mentions that, as a long-time resident of West Virginia, he along with many other civic leaders opposed a judge—Justice Benjamin’s opponent incumbent Justice Warren McGraw—with which they disagreed. “Like millions of other Americans I contributed my time, my energy and, yes, my money to oppose a candidate I disagreed with personally and politically,” Blankenship said. “It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court’s ruling is being reported as a matter of corporate influence and judicial review.”
If all of this sounds like fodder for a John Grisham novel, it was: The Appeal. Passions run high in coal country. Throughout the trial both parties have asked judges to remove themselves for various reasons. While no one questions Blankenship’s civic pride or Justice Benjamin’s ethics, standing on the outside looking in, it’s easy to see how the Supreme Court reached its decision. Hopefully, the appeal will now get a fair hearing.
Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief