The U.S. Supreme Court said today it would hear an appeal by a small West Virginia mining company in a case that has shined a spotlight on the issue of money and influence with elected state supreme court justices.
Harman Mining argues that West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin had a clear conflict of interest in presiding over the appeal of their case against the massive Massey Energy because of the CEO's aid in a $3.5 million advertising campaign that helped win that justice's election. The subject of Massey and its CEO Don Blankenship's relationship to Benjamin and another justice was the subject of an ABC News investigation.
Despite numerous requests for his recusal, Justice Brent Benjamin stayed on the Harman case and twice voted in favor of Massey Energy. Benjamin wrote in court documents that there is no evidence to suggest that he cannot be fair and impartial, but critics say the appearance of impropriety should have been enough for him to recuse himself.
"The question at issue here is central to the future of our court system," said David Fawcett, attorney for Harman Mining. "We are eager to continue to fight for a fair system, where judges who have received the benefit of vast sums of money from a litigant or a witness in a case must step aside from hearing the case."
Harman had accused Massey of running it out of business by defaulting on contracts and committing fraud. Harman won a $50 million verdict in trial court, but the case was appealed to the West Virginia State Supreme Court. Shortly after the initial verdict against Massey, their CEO helped to raise the $3.5 million for an advertising campaign that led to the defeat of one of the Supreme Court justices.
"We are eager to argue our positions before the Supreme Court," said Fawcett Friday. "We are confident the high court will not allow this case to stand, because people involved in lawsuits would have a license to contribute vast sums of money to elect judges with the expectation that those judges can then decide their case."
Harman is also represented by Theodore Olson, who has argued 49 cases before the court, including Bush v. Gore during the 2000 presidential election recount fiasco. He has also served as private counsel to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Massey Energy did not immediately return requests for comment.
A handful of interest groups filed briefs urging the court to take on the case, including the American Bar Association, the Campaign Legal Center, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Committee on Economic Development, the Washington [State] Appellate Lawyers Association and Public Citizen.