CHARLESTON -- Lawyers for Hugh Caperton and Harman Mining Corp. filed a brief this week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to make it illegal for a state Supreme Court justice to accept millions of dollars in campaign contributions from someone, then vote on legal decisions involving the same person.
The brief, filed Dec. 29, is part of an appeal Caperton and his coal company filed after Justice Brent Benjamin cast a deciding vote in the 3-2 decision to overturn a Boone County verdict.
In August 2002, a Boone County jury originally ruled against Massey Energy in the amount of $50 million. Including interest, the verdict is now worth more than $76 million.
The suit involved Massey's successful attempts to take Harman's long-term contract to sell metallurgical coal to LTV Steel in Pittsburgh in August 1997.
In the brief filed Monday, Caperton claims Benjamin should have recused himself from the Supreme Court decision that overturned the Boone County verdict.
That is because Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent about $3 million to get Benjamin elected in November 2004 when he beat incumbent Justice Warren McGraw, according to Caperton's complaint.
Blankenship gave $1,000 directly to Benjamin's campaign and $3 million to independent groups, including And For the Sake of the Kids, which bought anti-McGraw ads.
"Justice Benjamin was constitutionally required to recuse himself from this case because Mr. Blankenship's extraordinary support for his election campaign created an objective probability that he was biased in favor of Massey," the brief states. "Blankenship's expenditures ... unquestionably helped Justice Benjamin -– a previously unknown and underfunded candidate -– prevail in his sharply contested race."
However, judges should not be forced to recuse themselves because of typical campaign contributions from lawyers or potential litigants who give a few thousand dollars, the brief adds.
Blankenship's financial support of Benjamin, though, was staggering, the brief states.
"West Virginia law imposes a $1,000 limit on contributions to judicial campaigns," it states. "The $3 million that Mr. Blankenship spent is three times the amount spent by Justice Benjamin's own campaign committee."
In addition to the $3 million, Blankenship sought donations from others for Benjamins. He mailed letters to physicians claiming if McGraw was re-elected, their medical malpractice insurance would increase.
"Justice Benjamin's participation in his principal financial supporter's $50 million appeal could have an 'incalculable' and 'long-lasting negative effect' on West Virginia's judicial system," the brief states.
Benjamin defended his involvement in the Massey case, saying he was unbiased.
The brief asks the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse Benjamin's decision not to recuse himself, then to remand the case back to West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Oral arguments are scheduled in the case for March 3.