CHARLESTON –- A West Virginia legal reform group is throwing the book at what it calls John Grisham's blind-sided view of special interest influence in the judicial process.
Hawking his latest release "The Appeal" recently on NBC's "Today," Grisham told host Matt Lauer that West Virginia mirrors reality in his new novel.
"Grisham clearly does not know where fiction ends and the truth begins," said Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (WV CALA). "His views about our home state turn a blind eye to the lawsuit industry's role in the judiciary."
On "Today," Grisham referred to the 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court race.
"Basically, it involves a chemical company," Lauer said. "They contaminate the water in the community. There's a cancer outbreak. People die. And there's a $41 million jury award against this company. And the head of the company says, 'I'm not going to pay it. What I'm going to do is avoid paying it by stacking the court that's eventually going to hear the appeal on this case.' Far fetched?"
"It's already happened," Grisham said. "It's already happened. …
"It happened a few years ago in West Virginia. A guy who owned a coal company, got tired of getting sued. He elected his guy to the Supreme Court, it switched 5-4 back his way. Now he doesn't worry about getting sued. So it happens. It's already happened."
Grisham had the number of state Supreme Court justices wrong, but he was referring to Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who contributed money to help Justice Brent Benjamin win his seat in 2004 against Warren McGraw.
Also, last month, photos of Justice Spike Maynard and Blankenship together in the Riviera took center stage in a Supreme Court case appeal. At the time, Maynard was judging a multi-million dollar case against Massey. Both Maynard and Benjamin voted to overturn the verdict against Massey. The plaintiffs in the case have appealed the decision, and Maynard has recused himself.
Cohen maintains that "if Grisham wants to mirror reality he would spotlight West Virginia Consumers for Justice, the independent expenditure group which spent nearly $2 million to try to keep Warren McGraw's on the state Supreme Court."
Cohen also cites data from the Center for Public Integrity which shows in that race Consumers was the fifth largest non-corporate political committee in the U.S., even though it was focused on just one state.
"Mr. Grisham may want to tell his audience Consumers for Justice claimed status as a nonprofit but did not comply with IRS filing regulations," Cohen said. "Consumers never disclosed who its contributors are, how much was contributed or whether or not those contributors were from West Virginia."
Also, Cohen spoke of Grisham's casting nationally known Mississippi personal injury lawyer Richard Scruggs as "a champion of the little guy." Cohen noted Scruggs is now under indictment for allegedly bribing a judge.
A fitting character for Grisham's stories about West Virginia, suggests Cohen, is New Martinsville personal injury lawyer H. John Rogers who once proclaimed "if somebody can make $50 million by running to [Charleston's] Yeager Airport while the ashes are smoldering, why not?"
Cohen also suggested that, in a supporting role, could be a Grisham character modeled after West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher who, from the bench, called a woman a bitch. In another case he outrageously questioned the nationality of a lawyer in his court. When told she is Pakistani he muttered "I thought so" and called her a "courtroom prop" who was "window dressing" her case.
"Mr. Grisham clearly lacks credibility with his blatant ignorance," said Cohen, noting the author "told Lauer our state has a nine member Supreme Court."
"Talented a writer as Mr. Grisham is, it would serve him well to understand West Virginia's long history of problems involving the lawsuit industry and their allies on our courts."
Reportedly spurred, in part, by Grisham's comments, state Sen. Jeff Kessler, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed a clean elections bill suggesting that public funding of judicial candidates would lessen the influence of money in elections.
Calls and e-mails to Grisham's represenatives were not returned.