The West Virginia Supreme Court has again voted 3-2 to support a mining company despite a controversy over the possible bias of some of its members, including one justice who refused to recuse himself despite massive campaign contributions from one of the interested parties. In so ruling, Harman Mining and its owner, Hugh Caperton will not have to pay a $50 million award granted in 2002.
In West Virginia, coal is king and many are suggesting that its reach extends into the very chambers of the state’s highest court. An interesting fight is brewing in state and federal courts over allegations of bias for and against a leading coal company, Massey Coal. Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher has already recused himself under demands from Massey while he has accused other justices of having far greater bias in favor of the company and its executives.
After being challenged over statements that he made critical of the company, Starcher recused himself from participating in the review of the case against Massey Coal and five of its subsidiaries — worth almost $80 million. The court previously overturned the verdict against Massey but will not reconsider its decision — without Starcher.
Starcher’s past comment were critical not just of Massey Energy but its CEO, Don Blankenship.
In his filing, Starcher took the unusual step of pointing out that his colleague, Justice Brent Benjamin, has even more reasons to step aside — $4 million to be precise. Blankenship and his associates allegedly raised the money to pay for Benjamin’s campaign against incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.
Starcher has alleged that ” Mr. Blankenship, his money and his friendship have far more egregiously tainted the perceived impartiality of this court than any statement by me.” He complained that that Benjamin “not only remains on this case, as well as other Massey cases before the court, but that justice continues at this time to appoint replacement judges in all Massey cases.”
Massey has a case before the federal district court challenging Starcher’s past role and its impact on the case.
What is most interesting is that Benjamin became the Supreme Court’s acting chief justice in the Harman case after Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard stepped down earlier this year — following the disclosure of 34 photographs showing Blankenship and Maynard together on the French Riviera in July 2006. They were shown partying with female companions.
Justice Brent Benjamin did not recuse himself in this latest vote despite the fact that Blankenship spent about $3.5 million of his own money to help get Benjamin elected to the Supreme Court. The story shows the flaws in the elected state bench and its vulnerability to campaign influence. For a recent column, click here.
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