By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

MORGANTOWN -- April 10 will be an intriguing day in the courtroom of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

On that day beginning at 10 a.m., Justice Larry Starcher is scheduled to conduct a hearing on the question of whether he should step aside in the case involving Massey Energy and it's CEO-Starcher's nemesis Don Blankenship.

Normally, when one of the parties asks for a justice to step aside because there is a question about their impartiality the justice makes his/her own decision in private, without a hearing. Court officials believe this planned open hearing with arguments over the recusal question will be a first in West Virginia.

Which then prompts the question, why?

First, understand that Justice Starcher believes Blankenship has gained undue influence on the court. Blankenship is close friends with Chief Justice Spike Maynard and Maynard was forced to step aside from Massey cases after pictures surfaced of the two vacationing together in Monaco.

Blankenship also used $3 million of his own money to help Justice Brent Benjamin win election in 2004. Starcher believes Benjamin should also step aside in Massey cases, but he has refused to do so saying he can still rule impartially in Massey cases.

Starcher argues that Blankenship's bestowal of his personal wealth and friendship "have created a cancer in the affairs of this court" that, if not corrected will create "cynicism and disgust that the lawyers, judges, and citizens of this wonderful State will feel about our justice system."

I have known Starcher for many years, covering him first when he was a circuit court judge in Monongalia County. I've seen him display remarkable acts of kindness and goodwill that indicate a big heart.

But I've also seen him act like an ass. Starcher can be bullheaded and boorish. But then again, he can also be warm and engaging. The Starcher you get depends on when you catch him and what the subject is.

Clearly, Starcher is worked into a froth over Blankenship, Maynard, Benjamin, et al. The press has covered the controversy, but the initial outrage over the pictures of Blankenship and Maynard chumming it up at a European hot spot has died down.

Starcher's open hearing may be a way for him to get the story back in the news and even add more material. In his "cancer-on-the-court" filing last month, Starcher said cryptically, "I have seen that cancer grow and grow, in ways that I may not fully disclose at this point."

A hearing over his own recusal with all watching would be a prime time for Starcher to drop a bomb, if he has one.

But an open hearing on Starcher's alleged bias against Massey and Blankenship carries risks for Starcher as well. The justice has inserted his foot in his mouth plenty of times over the years, particularly when his anger has gotten the best of him.

Now attorneys for Massey who are trying to get Starcher off their case will get a chance to make their arguments in open court. If they really want to go after the fractious judge, here's the chance.

Of course, with this much time to prepare the hearing could turn into a staid debate over the merits of the recusal motion. With Justice Larry V. Starcher, you just never know.

Mark down April 10.

Kercheval is vice president of operations for MetroNews and the host of Talkline, which has become a signature program of the network.

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