The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to hear a case involving campaign contributions Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship made during a West Virginia Supreme Court race -- contributions that critics alleged played a major role in electing a justice who subsequently overturned a $50 million ruling against Massey.
Lawyers who sought the appeal hope the nation's highest court will issue clearer guidelines for when a judge must excuse himself from a case involving a major campaign contributor.
"We are confident the high court will not allow this case to stand, because people would have a license to contribute vast sums of money to elect judges with the expectation that those judges can then decide their case," said David Fawcett, a Pittsburgh attorney.
He represents Hugh Caperton, a West Virginia coal company owner who sued a Massey affiliate for fraud in 1998. A lower court awarded Mr. Caperton $50 million in damages in 2002, a decision Massey appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Mr. Caperton's attorneys asked two justices to recuse themselves, including Justice Brent Benjamin, who won a seat in 2004 after defeating incumbent Warren McGraw. Justice Benjamin's campaign benefitted from $3 million in contributions made by Mr. Blankenship.
Justice Benjamin declined their request. The court ruled in Massey's favor twice by a 3-2 margin, with Justice Benjamin casting the deciding vote both times.
Len Boselovic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941.