(08/05/2008)
The American Bar Association and other legal groups are speaking out about West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, saying he was wrong to stay on a $76.3 million case involving a key booster of his 2004 election campaign.

Five organizations filed briefs Monday urging the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the appeal of a state ruling that wiped out a judgment in that amount against Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy.

The groups have faulted Benjamin for hearing the case after Don Blankenship, Massey's president, chairman and chief executive officer, spent an estimated $3.5 million to help him win his seat.

Benjamin twice voted to upend the verdict won against Massey by Harman Mining in a coal contract dispute.

Last week Benjamin issued a lengthy brief defending his staying on Massey cases.

At stake is a fundamental question: Can big-money interests spend millions to put their chosen judges on the bench, then reap bigger millions in favorable court rulings by those judges?

The Chicago Tribune:

"Arguments are pending on a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court that stems from the refusal of a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals justice to disqualify himself in a case involving a contributor who supported his election campaign with more than $3 million."

"The justice repeatedly ruled in favor of the contributor in a $50 million jury verdict against the contributor's company."

"Theodore Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general who filed the appeal with the Supreme Court, said a line needs to be drawn somewhere to prevent a judge from hearing cases involving a person who has made massive campaign contributions to benefit the judge."

"One of the justices on the West Virginia court said the relationship between the contributor, a coal company executive, and Justice Brent Benjamin has 'created a cancer in the affairs of this court. ... I shudder to think of the cynicism and disgust that lawyers, judges and citizens of this wonderful state will feel about our justice system,' said Justice Larry Starcher."

"I believe John Grisham got it right when he said he simply had to read The Charleston Gazette to get an idea for his next novel," said Starcher.

Starcher was referring to the novel, "The Appeal," in which corporate moguls bankroll a judge candidate in hope of reversing a large damage verdict against their firm.

Author Grisham said his fictional tale is based on the deluge of cash that Massey Energy's CEO spent to put Benjamin on West Virginia's highest court.

A recent Wall Street Journal commentary titled "Justice for Sale" reiterated that Justice Benjamin won't remove himself from Massey cases and repeatedly votes to erase the $50 million fraud verdict against Massey, now grown to $76 million with interest.

"In the long term, we all lose when any decision reinforces suspicions that the biggest donor, not the best case, wins," the Journal essay concluded.

The appeal filed with the high court says Benjamin's denial to step aside "substantially undermined the integrity and reputation of the West Virginia judicial system."


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