This article originally provided by The New York Times

October 1, 2006

Case Studies: West Virginia and Illinois


Justice Larry V. Starcher of the West Virginia Supreme Court says he likes his new colleague, Justice Brent D. Benjamin. But he has a funny way of showing it.

“It makes me want to puke,” said Justice Starcher, a Democrat, “to see massive amounts of out-of-state money come in and buy a seat on our court.”

Justice Benjamin, a Republican lawyer with no judicial experience, unseated a West Virginia Supreme Court justice in 2004 with the help of about $3 million in advertisements and other support from Don L. Blankenship, the chief executive officer of Massey Energy, a coal-mining company. Massey has its headquarters in Virginia, but the company says Mr. Blankenship has spent most of his life in West Virginia.

As far as Justice Starcher is concerned, “Now we have one justice who was bought by Don Blankenship.”

Like other justices around the country who gained seats on their states’ highest courts with the help of large contributions and heavy independent spending, Justice Benjamin sees no conflict in sitting on his supporters’ cases. In April, he refused to disqualify himself from an appeal in a case in which a jury had ordered a Massey affiliate to pay $50 million.

Justice Benjamin wrote that the motion seeking his disqualification was filled with “surmise, conjecture and political rhetoric.” The motion, he added, “may be condemned as an assault upon the administration of justice.” The case itself is pending. Justice Starcher, who has called Massey Energy a rogue company, is also facing calls for disqualification. Massey Energy sued the West Virginia Supreme Court in federal court in August, arguing that allowing justices to decide for themselves whether they should be disqualified was unconstitutional.

Justice Starcher said he would not step aside.

“I’m against murder,” he said, “but I can be fair to murderers.”

Justice Benjamin declined to comment.

The sums involved in two cases before the Illinois Supreme Court were even larger.

As Judge Lloyd A. Karmeier, a Republican, campaigned for a seat on the court in 2004, the two largest class-action judgments in the state’s history, against State Farm and Philip Morris, were pending in the court. The briefs were filed and the cases argued before he joined the court.

Judge Karmeier raised and spent $4.8 million, much of it from supporters of the two companies. More than $350,000 came from employees and lawyers of State Farm Insurance and those of groups that filed briefs supporting the company. Even more — depending on how money contributed through intermediaries is counted — came from people and groups associated with Philip Morris.

In August 2005, Justice Karmeier cast the deciding vote to reverse a $456 million breach of contract award against State Farm. In December 2005, he cast the deciding vote in the Philip Morris case, reversing a $10 billion judgment against the company in a suit over light cigarettes.

But in November 2005, in a second State Farm case, Justice Karmeier recused himself, without explanation. The remaining justices voted 6 to 0 in favor of State Farm.

Justice Karmeier declined to comment through a spokesman, who said the justice was constrained because the United States Supreme Court was considering whether to hear the Philip Morris case.


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