This article originally provided by WV Public Radio

January 30, 2008

John Grisham disses Blankenship, WV court

Cites 2004 election as example of judicial corruption

By Scott Finn

WV’s judiciary is getting national attention from one of America’s best-selling novelists, John Grisham. In a recent interview, he referred to WV’s 2004 Supreme Court election as an example to show that what happens in his latest book, “The Appeal,” isn’t far from reality. Today Show host Matt Lauer asked Grisham about “The Appeal” on the Today Show Tuesday morning. Basically, it involves a chemical company,” Lauer said. “They contaminate the water in the community. There’s a cancer outbreak. People die. And there’s a $41 million jury award against this company. And the head of the company says, I’m not gonna pay it. What I’m gonna do is avoid paying it by stacking the court that’s eventually gonna hear the appeal on this case. Far fetched?”

“It’s already happened,” Grisham said. “It’s already happened.”

“It’s a long term calculation,” Lauer said. “You have to be pretty sure about the money you’re investing in this.”

“Well, it’s happened,” Grisham said. “It happened a few years ago in West Virginia. A guy who owned a coal company, got tired of getting sued. He elected his guy to the Supreme Court, it switched 5-4 back his way. Now he doesn’t worry about getting sued. So it happens. It’s already happened.” Grisham got the number of Supreme Court justices wrong, but his main point was the $3M Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent to help Justice Brent Benjamin win his seat in 2004. And earlier this month, photos emerged of state Supreme Court Spike Maynard vacationing with Blankenship in the Riviera – at the same time that Maynard was judging a multi-million dollar case against Massey. Both Maynard and Benjamin voted to overturn the verdict against Massey, which saved the company $76M. The plaintiffs in the case have appealed the decision, and now that the pictures have come out, Maynard has recused himself from the case. Sen. Jon Hunter said it’s pretty bad when WV becomes John Grisham’s poster child for judicial corruption.

“When they asked him for a specific example, unfortunately, he said West Virginia,” Hunter said. Sen. John Yoder said that the stories are even echoing through the halls of the US Supreme Court. He said he was at the court Thursday night for a dinner, and everyone from law professors to justices focused on WV’s judiciary. One professor said he now uses WV in his ethics class – as an example of what not to do. “Everyone was talking about West Virginia and how bad it is,” Yoder said. “Everybody is laughing at us.”

Sen. Jeff Kessler said he has a solution: a clean elections bill for the Judiciary. He said the public funding of judicial candidates would lessen the influence of money in elections. He also attacked the US Chamber of Commerce for calling WV a judicial hellhole.

Sen. Evan Jenkins has his own solution: the non-partisan election of judges. Jenkins has personal experience here – he ran for the state Supreme Court in 2000 and lost in the Democratic primary. “As many of you know, very often I speak out in areas where WV seems to be out of step,” Jenkins said. “And this is clearly an area where WV is out of step.” Jenkins urged Kessler to put the non-partisan election bill on the Judiciary Committee agenda. “So let’s be reflective of the will of the public at least give the bill an opportunity to be discussed,” Jenkins said.

Kessler said the problem isn’t political parties – it’s the money behind the elections. Legally, there’s no way to stop individuals like Blankenship from spending their own money on behalf of candidates. But Kessler said a clean elections bill would give other candidates a fighting chance.

Voter-Owned Elections

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