SOUTH CHARLESTON – Don Blankenship has created a cancer on our courts, according to state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher.
Speaking Monday at the monthly meeting of the Kanawha County Federation of Democratic Women at the South Charleston Public Library, Starcher also said that, despite ideas to the contrary, the state judicial system is not a "Judicial Hellhole."
"The simple fact is that the pernicious effects of a single wealthy coal company executive's bestowal of his personal wealth, his influence with his associates, his political tactics, and a 'close friendship' have created a cancer on our Court," Starcher said. "I have spoken out against this problem - hoping that I will say or do something that might help set our Court on a different path."
Starcher told those attending the meeting that they can help remedy the court.
"You also can help cure this cancer by doing all within your means to resist this invasion of influence on the Court by helping our Democrat party nominate real Democrats in May - not "Republicrats," people who are Democrat in registration only," he said in his speech, which was titled "Our 'Real Democrats.'"
In the past, Starcher has been critical of Blankenship on various occasions. He has called the Massey chief "stupid" and "a clown." Starcher's comments about Massey and Blankenship resulted in a lawsuit filed by Massey against the Supreme Court with the goal of forcing Starcher to disqualify himself from all Massey cases.
After the 2004 election that saw Brent Benjamin – a Republican candidate supported by Blankenship – defeat incumbent Warren McGraw, Starcher criticized Massey.
"What we're going to see is we're gonna see Massey Coal and the big out-of-state insurance companies and huge mega-corporations buy a seat on our Supreme Court, and I'll be very sad to sit on the Supreme Court for the next four years, quite frankly," Starcher said in a public radio interview. "I hate to see out-of-state money be used in such an obscene way as it was in this race to buy a seat on the Supreme Court and attempt to control it. It saddens me very much."
Before that election, Starcher also said that if Benjamin defeated McGraw, "Don Blankenship and the Massey Coal Company will own the West Virginia Supreme Court."
After the election, Starcher spoke about Blankenship and Massey at the 2005 annual conference of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.
"Justice McGraw was not opposed in the general election by some neophyte lawyer named Brent Benjamin," Starcher was quoted as saying. "He was opposed by a Richmond, Va., resident named Don Blankenship, who poked $4 million into defeating Justice Warren McGraw in (the) Supreme Court. Nobody ever heard of Brent Benjamin … and he practiced law in Charleston for 20 years, I believe.
"So, really, the election was bought, a seat was purchased on our Supreme Court, and I'm highly offended by it. I'm highly offended by the obscene use of out-of-state money …
"They tried to purchase a seat on our Supreme Court, and they succeeded. Coincidentally, Massey Coal, which Don Blankenship is a CEO, has a $60 million case on appeal in our court at this time. He has also -- his coal company -- has more EPA violations than all other coal companies put together in West Virginia. He has a very special interest in owning a seat on the Supreme Court."
Earlier this year, Starcher also asked Court Administrator Steve Canterbury to make sure no documents are destroyed and that records regarding Blankenship's friendship with Chief Justice Spike Maynard not be altered, removed or erased. That came about after photos showing Blankenship and Maynard together in Monaco.
Last month, Starcher recused himself from Harman Mining's $76 million lawsuit against Massey and Blankenship. Harman was awarded $60 million by a Boone County jury in its coal contract dispute with Massey and interest pushed the figure to $76 million, but the Supreme Court in November overturned the decision with a 3-2 vote.
Harman owner Hugh Caperton later produced photographs of Blankenship and Maynard together in Monaco. Maynard admitted he is a longtime friend of Blankenship's, claimed the two coincidentally were vacationing at the same place at the same time and provided documentation that showed Massey did not pay for his trip.
The justices unanimously decided to hear Harman's case again, and did so earlier this month. Maynard and Starcher did recuse themselves from that case.
And last week, Starcher said the issues involving Blankenship and the Supreme Court have "become a matter of heightened public interest and concern" and said he will hear oral arguments regarding his recusal in a Massey case against Wheeling-Pitt on April 10.
"(T)here should be an opportunity for the judge whose recusal is being sought to hear oral presentation by the movants, through counsel, to properly evaluate the merits of the recusal request," Starcher wrote in a notice. "Furthermore, counsel for the respondents should likewise be afforded the opportunity to be heard on the issue."
The controversy currently manifests itself in Massey's appeal of a $240 million Brooke County verdict in favor of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and Mountain State Carbon.
At his speech Monday, Starcher mostly spoke to the Democratic Women's group about the upcoming election and its importance and historical value. He also talked about the party's history and the state of the nation.
To conclude his remarks, he spoke of the Court and his decision to not seek re-election this year.
"I have been privileged to be a part of our state judiciary for nearly a third of a century - 20 as a trial judge and nearly 12 years as a justice on our State's highest court," he said. "It has been an honor for me to have served on your Court.
"But as you know I am not a candidate for re-election this year. Would liked to have been, but age, health and promises to my family have moved me to the sidelines."
Starcher later said that the Court is not in good health either.
"Big money and special interests have directed a campaign against our courts by portraying West Virginia as a 'judicial hellhole,' he said. "These are false claims that facts do not support, and false claims that have been refuted by academic researchers at West Virginia University. These claims are simply not true, but truth and accuracy mean nothing to people who want to skew the justice system in their favor."