This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

August 2, 2008

The Charleston Gazette: Fairness

Impartial justice

Around America, concerned observers are watching an important West Virginia case before the U.S. Supreme Court. At stake is a fundamental question: Can big-money interests spend millions to put their chosen judges on the bench, then reap bigger millions in favorable court rulings by those judges?

Here's an excerpt from Monday's Chicago Tribune:

"Arguments are pending on a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court that stems from the refusal of a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals justice to disqualify himself in a case involving a contributor who supported his election campaign with more than $3 million. The justice repeatedly ruled in favor of the contributor in a $50 million jury verdict against the contributor's company.

"Theodore Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general who filed the appeal with the Supreme Court, said a 'line needs to be drawn somewhere to prevent a judge from hearing cases involving a person who has made massive campaign contributions to benefit the judge.'

"One of the justices on the West Virginia court said the relationship between the contributor, a coal company executive, and Justice Brent Benjamin has 'created a cancer in the affairs of this court. ... I shudder to think of the cynicism and disgust that lawyers, judges and citizens of this wonderful state will feel about our justice system,' said Justice Larry Starcher. 'I believe John Grisham got it right when he said he simply had to read The Charleston Gazette to get an idea for his next novel.'"

Justice Starcher was referring to the novel, "The Appeal," in which corporate moguls bankroll a judge candidate in hope of reversing a large damage verdict against their firm. Author Grisham said his fictional tale is based on the deluge of cash that Massey Energy's CEO spent to put Benjamin on West Virginia's highest court.

A recent Wall Street Journal commentary titled "Justice for Sale" reiterated that Justice Benjamin won't remove himself from Massey cases and repeatedly votes to erase the $50 million fraud verdict against Massey, now grown to $76 million with interest.

"In the long term, we all lose when any decision reinforces suspicions that the biggest donor, not the best case, wins," the Journal essay concluded.

With a national spotlight on him, what did Benjamin do? He filed a mammoth court paper this week insisting that he's correct in hearing Massey cases and scuttling a $76 million debt for the CEO who poured $3 million into his 2004 campaign.

We think his position is untenable. Every court system in the world requires judges to not only be impartial but also avoid the mere appearance of partiality. In Benjamin's situation, the appearance is overwhelming.

The appeal filed with the U.S. Supreme Court says Benjamin's refusal to step aside "substantially undermined the integrity and reputation of the West Virginia judicial system."

This is a highly significant case. West Virginia is waiting to learn whether America's highest court will rule that a judge may, or may not, issue rulings in favor of a millionaire who put him on the bench.

Voter-Owned Elections

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