[As 2014 comes to a close, the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks back on some major reports over the last year.]
The West Virginia Supreme Court has a well-known history when it comes to questions of possible conflicts between justices and the parties who argue before them – even the United States Supreme Court chimed in during one notorious case, requiring a top judge to recuse himself after he received millions of dollars in campaign support from a defendant.
An ABC News investigation earlier this month uncovered new questions about the court earlier this year when reporting on thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and a previously-undisclosed $1 million business deal between the lawyer handling a massive nursing home abuse case and the chief justice’s husband.
“This does not look good for the rule of law,” said James Sample, an expert on judicial ethics at Hofstra University Law School. “This is a circus masquerading as a court.”
As a $90 million jury verdict was wending its way to the state’s high court, the lawyer handling the nursing home abuse case was lining up thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for the court’s chief justice and negotiating a private deal to buy a Lear Jet from her husband for more than $1 million. Critics said it gave the appearance the lawyer was pulling every lever available to him to try to give his client an edge outside the legal system.
When the nursing home case finally reached the state’s high court earlier this year, Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis wrote the majority opinion upholding the jury verdict for the client of lawyer Michael Fuller, though lowering the final payout to just over $40 million. The cut for Fuller’s firm: more than $17 million -- one of the largest payouts he’s ever secured.
Davis never disclosed the airplane deal, telling ABC News she was under no obligation to do so because it involved her husband, and not her. But ethics experts have questioned that assertion.
“A million-dollar sale of an airplane while litigation involving the lawyer who purchases the airplane is pending before the court?” Sample said. “Absolutely no question. It’s proper to disclose, and it is improper to not disclose.”
After the report appeared on ABC News, Davis’s husband, attorney Scott Segal, appeared on West Virginia talk radio to defend his wife, saying she would in no way have been influenced by his business dealings, and that she never even looked at the names of the people who donated to her campaign.
But the Charleston Daily Mail wrote in an editorial that the ABC News findings “raise enough concern to reinforce the perception of West Virginia’s court system as a judicial hellhole for those who play by the rules,” and the Charleston Gazette called on the state Judicial Investigation Commission and Judicial Hearing Board to conduct their own investigations into the dealings.
An advocacy group called West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse called for “an outside, independent investigation into this transaction and the relationships among Justice Davis, her husband, and the personal injury lawyer.”