West Virginia Record

Friday, July 19, 2019

High court intrigue

By The West Virginia Record | Jan 25, 2008

Chief Judge Spike Maynard certainly didn't have to do it.

Accused of dining with a defendant and playing favorites by desperate plaintiffs, the state Supreme Court chief justice could have dug in his heels and refused to recuse himself from the Massey coal case that has grabbed national headlines.

In the heightened political climate surrounding the case, Maynard would have been forgiven for aggressively defending himself; for taking a few shots in the media firefight in our high court, if only to protect his own reputation against serious accusations of impropriety.

But in his words, the battle wasn't just about him.

"It now has become an issue of public perception and public confidence in the courts," Maynard wrote. "Above all else, I am very concerned about how the public views this court."

With that, the Mingo County Democrat recused himself last week from a multi-million dollar court dispute between two West Virginia coal executives, one of whom he'd call a friend.

That's even though Maynard thought he still could be fair. That's even though the judge said he could look past a personal relationship and objectively rule on the law.

When it comes to securing the trust of our most important public institutions, sometimes perception has to be reality. This was one those times.

Maynard's recusal didn't go unnoticed. For one of his colleagues on the court, it didn't go far enough.

As Maynard stepped aside, Justice Larry Starcher took exactly the opposite tact, angrily re-inserting himself into that
same multi-million dollar court fight between executives, one of whom he'd call an enemy.

The executive at issue -- friend of Maynard, enemy of Starcher -- is Don Blankenship, CEO of the largest energy company in our state and West Virginia's prevailing political lightning rod for his well-financed, personal political activism.

It's Blankenship's work -- supporting pro-business candidates and judges, and opposing activist, anti-business ones -- that prompted Justice Starcher to quip publicly in the past that Blankenship is "stupid" and a "clown."

It's what drove Starcher to pen his infamous "horse puckey" diatribe masquerading as a dissent, that trashed Blankenship back in November and embarrassed our state's judiciary by misrepresenting a venomous personal attack as a reasoned argument on the law.

And it might serve to explain why Starcher would call for an "outside probe" of Maynard and Blankenship's relationship -- both are from the small town of Williamson (pop. 3,414) -- without offering a shred of evidence of impropriety.

Starcher didn't have to act in a most unjudicial manner. He could have passed on the opportunity to turn West Virginia's most important court into a circus of mud-slinging. He could have considered the damaging, long-term precedent of a sitting justice using his office to settle political scores.

But he went ahead anyway. Because above all else, Larry Starcher is very concerned, too.

About how the public views himself.

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