CHARLESTON — Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told an audience of American Bar Association members in Charlotte, N.C. last week that the public is growing distrustful of elected judges, and she used the Harman Mining case against state Chief Justice Brent Benjamin as an example of the problem of judicial elections.
According to a May 9 story in the ABA Journal, O’Connor told those at the association’s summit that elected judges are increasingly running the risk of being seen as “just politicians in robes” as opposed to impartial jurists.
During her speech, O’Connor mentioned the Benjamin case, which is currently under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Coal operator Hugh Caperton wanted Benjamin to step down from hearing a Massey appeal against Harman because Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million on an ad campaign many say helped get Benjamin elected to the court in 2004.
“It just doesn’t look good,” O’Connor was quoted as saying in her speech. “West Virginia cannot possibly benefit from having that much money injected into cases.”
The state court twice voted to overturn a $50 million verdict against Massey for fraudulently putting Harman into bankruptcy. Benjamin refused to step down in the case, arguing that he could be impartial.
Caperton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in the matter later this year.
While O’Connor declined to speculate on how the court would rule, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine law school, believed that the court would find that the West Virginia Supreme Court’s system of judicial recusal — which is left up to the individual justices — violates due process.