This article originally provided by The Herald-Dispatch

September 24, 2005

Benjamin shows need for judicial selection reform

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals met in Huntington on Tuesday to hear arguments in a case in which
11 coal companies argue that the state's severance tax on coal is really a sales tax.

Up to $500 million in collected taxes on coal exports could be at stake.

But that wasn't the only question of the day.

One of the five justices hearing Tuesday's arguments was Brent Benjamin, the Republican elected last year with the help of more than $3 million in advertising paid for by Don Blankenship, chairman and chief executive officer of Massey Energy. Massey is West Virginia's largest coal producer and one of the 11 companies seeking to overturn West Virginia's coal severance tax as it is presently collected on coal sold for export.

Benjamin did not recuse himself from the case. He should have. His impartiality is in doubt given the amount of help he received from Blankenship's money last year.

Benjamin is part of a justice system that relies on partisan political elections to select state Supreme Court justices, county circuit court judges and county magistrates. Any Supreme Court justice who accepts campaign contributions from any person, party, group or political action committee, or who benefits from third-party help such as Benjamin received from Blankenship, is similarly tainted. Benjamin's case is more extreme than others, but the same concern applies to all.

This newspaper endorsed Benjamin last year. It has also called for a different method of selecting justices, judges and magistrates. Nonpartisan elections won't do. They are merely partisan elections in disguise. An appointment process relying on the governor and the Legislature probably is the best way.

Unless, of course, voters really want a state Supreme Court consisting of five justices whose ability to accumulate campaign IOUs is their primary qualification for office.

Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246