Supreme Court tackles campaign case

Bruce Green in Associated Press, March 02, 2009

A coal executive's bankrolling of a West Virginia justice's election comes under intense scrutiny this week as the nation's highest court considers when judges should step aside from cases involving campaign supporters.

Don Blankenship spent at least $3 million to help Republican Brent Benjamin, a little-known lawyer from Charleston, defeat the incumbent Democrat in 2004.

Benjamin later helped form the 3-to-2 majority that overturned a judgment, now valued at $82.7 million with interest, against Blankenship's Richmond-based Massey Energy Co.

Legal ethics experts have faulted Benjamin for failing to remove himself from the case. Some also question whether the US justices can craft a ruling that makes clear when campaign support requires a judge to step aside. "It's going to be such a vague test, the court may be disinclined to set that down," said Bruce Green, a professor and director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law. "I don't see a bright line."

Benjamin has defended his presence on the Massey case by arguing, among other things, that he has no personal or financial stake in the energy company and that his election campaign was independent of Blankenship's efforts. He also noted that he has ruled against Massey at least four times, including in a unanimous refusal to hear the company's appeal of a $260 million judgment won in another contract dispute.

Benjamin, who began a one-year term as chief justice in January, has withdrawn temporarily from all Massey-related matters pending before his court while awaiting a ruling from the US Supreme Court.

In an appeal, Harman Mining Corp. and its president, Hugh Caperton, want the justices to declare that their right to due process was violated by Benjamin's refusal to step aside. Massey and its allies say the case threatens the rights of states to govern their courts and to elect their judicial officers as West Virginia and 37 other states do.