The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice should have removed himself from a $50 million appeal in which he ruled in favor of a coal mining company whose CEO had been a major campaign donor.
By a 5-4 vote, the Court held that W.V. Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from an appeal where a jury had previously found Massey Energy liable for $50 million in damages in a contract dispute with Harman Mining Corp.
Massey Energy's CEO, Don Blankenship, steered nearly $3 million in contributions to Justice Benjamin's election in 2006 - a total that exceeded the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters. Subsequently, with Benjamin casting the key vote, the W.V. Supreme court then ruled for Blankenship and threw out the verdict.
When asked by ABC News about the possible conflicts of interest of judges hearing the company's cases, Blankenship threatened ABC's Producer Asa Eslocker.
The Supreme court said while there appeared to be no actual bias, the risk of bias was so great the judge should have bowed out of the case. The Court stressed that the "extraordinary" nature of the case, with Blankenship's contributions of $3 million to support the justice's campaign, required recusal under the Due Process Clause.
"We find that, in all the circumstances of this case, due process requires recusal," Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded for the court majority.
The decision sends the case back to the lower court which must rethink the issue without Justice Benjamin.
Harman Mining had argued that Justice 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, 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.
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.