The appeals court judge, Brent Benjamin, received $3 million in support from Massey chief executive Don Blankenship during his campaign to be elected to the state bench.
From the Reuters article:
Benjamin twice was in the majority in 3-2 decisions that overturned the $50 million jury verdict against Massey in a coal contract dispute with Harman Mining Corp.
Blankenship had earlier spent $3 million supporting Benjamin’s campaign for a seat on the court while opposing the incumbent. As a judge, Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case, saying he could be fair and impartial.
The ruling, reached by 5-4 vote, means judges must remove themselves from cases where big campaign contributions create the appearance of bias. States have had various standards for recusal, but most left the decision to the judge.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion:
Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge’s recusal, but this is an exceptional case.
Justices Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens shared the majority opinion.
Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas dissented and wrote in their opinion that the ruling creates an unworkable rule for when judges should step down from a case. (Read the full opinion here via the New York Times.)
Massey Energy responded to the verdict with 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, in a written statement.
The latest ruling means the West Virginia Supreme Court will have to review its judgment of the original case. In 2002, the Boone County Circuit Court ruled against Massey and awarded $50 million to Harman Mining Corporation. That sum is now over $80 million with interest, according to the Associated Press.
The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has continuing coverage of the case.
West Virginia is among 39 states where some judgeships are elected. Virginia is one of two states where the legislature elects judges.
The Times-Dispatch recently ran a story about a growing campaign to carefully scrutinize the state’s judicial-selection process.