This article originally provided by
The Charleston Gazette
August 2, 2008
The Charleston Gazette: Fairness
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
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
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.