Supreme Court case with the feel of a best seller

In a small town, a local resident claims wrongdoing by a big corporation and wins a multimillion-dollar award after a jury trial. The corporation's CEO then pumps enough campaign money into a judicial election to get a new judge on the state supreme court. During an appeal, that judge casts a critical vote siding with the corporation — and reversing the resident's victory.

Sound like the plot of a John Grisham novel?

It is — his 2008 best seller, The Appeal. But it also resembles a real dispute between West Virginia coal mining rivals that now is before the U.S. Supreme Court. The decade-long dispute, a reflection of the growing questions surrounding judicial elections, tests whether an elected judge's refusal to take himself off a case involving a chief financial backer is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court case of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal began when Donald Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey, lost a $50 million verdict in a fraud lawsuit brought by Hugh Caperton and his small, independent Harman Mining Co. over the cancellation of a long-term coal contract.

As the case moved toward appeals, Blankenship contributed $3 million to help unseat incumbent Democratic Judge Warren McGraw in his race against a Republican, Charleston lawyer Brent Benjamin — 60% of the total spent in favor of Benjamin and against McGraw. Benjamin won. Three years later, when Massey's appeal got to the West Virginia Supreme Court, Benjamin cast a crucial vote to overturn the verdict that had favored Caperton.

"I remember looking up at a judge who had just gotten $3 million … to be elected and thinking, 'How in the world is this fair?' " Caperton says, recalling a state Supreme Court hearing that led to the reversal of his victory.

The notion of impartial judges is central to the U.S. legal system, and the West Virginia case — to be heard by the high court March 3 — has become Exhibit A in the debate over how high-dollar state judicial elections can raise questions about the fairness of some rulings.

A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this month found 89% of those surveyed believe the influence of campaign contributions on judges' rulings is a problem, and 52% deem it a "major" problem. More than 90% of the 1,027 adults surveyed said judges should be removed from a case if it involves an individual or group that contributed to the judge's election campaign.

The West Virginia dispute spotlights the dramatic rise in campaign money in judicial elections. From 2000 to 2007, $168 million was spent on contested elections for states' highest courts, up from $87 million from 1990 to 1999, reports the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, a legal group siding with Caperton.

Retired U.S. justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often speaks about judicial independence, has referred to the caseas an example of possible courtroom bias. More than 40 groups, including the American Bar Association, have weighed in with 11 "friend of the court" briefs supporting Caperton.

Far fewer groups have lined up with Massey. However, seven states have backed Massey in a court filing and urged the justices to let states decide when their judges must disqualify themselves from a case.

Caperton's "attempt to shoehorn" differences in states' judicial policies "into an overarching federal constitutional standard makes little practical sense," the states say.

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