Supreme Court to Hear Massey-Case Appeal

By Mark H. Anderson
The Wall Street Journal

November 17, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal in a case over whether a West Virginia justice should have stepped aside from a $50 million judgment involving the chief executive of A.T. Massey Coal Co., a major contributor to the justice's political coffers.

Brent Benjamin, a West Virginia justice, accepted more than $3 million in campaign contributions from Don Blankenship, the A.T. Massey executive, but twice joined a 3-2 majority ruling that threw out the judgment against the company.

The $50 million verdict stems from a business-fraud lawsuit filed against A.T. Massey, a unit of Massey Energy Co., by Harman Development Corp., a closely held mining company based in Beckley, W. Va.

Harman Development claims it was forced into bankruptcy because of allegedly fraudulent maneuvering by A.T. Massey to secure coal-supply contracts at a steel plant.

Mr. Blankenship's contributions to Justice Benjamin's judicial campaign came in 2004 and represented more than half of the funds for the judge's election campaign for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, court documents said.

Harman Development appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after Justice Benjamin declined requests that he not rule on the verdict in the business dispute.

Justice Benjamin was the deciding vote in rulings that threw out the judgment against A.T. Massey.

The West Virginia high court last ruled in the case in April.

Harman Development, in a court brief, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and "clarify the circumstances in which due process requires the recusal of an elected judge who has benefited from a litigant's substantial campaign expenditures."

Theodore Olson, a lawyer with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington and Harman Development's attorney for the appeal, said "the issues raised by massive campaign contributions to judges from litigants and their attorneys go to the very heart of what it means to be given a fair trial."

A.T. Massey said Justice Benjamin's participation in the case "did not deprive petitioners of due process." The Massey brief argued that the issue of when an elected justice should step aside from a case isn't one the Supreme Court should take up.

"We respect the court's decision to review this case and look forward to the ultimate resolution of this matter," said Shane Harvey, Massey Energy's general counsel. "We are confident that the Harman case was properly decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court."

The case is Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. Oral arguments will be heard in early 2009.

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