CHARLESTON -- One of the attorneys for Hugh Caperton and his mining company understandably are "jubilant" with the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that it was unconstitutional for a state Supreme Court justice to hear a case involving the fiscal activities of the judge's election campaign major donors.
The case, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, involves state Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin. The nation's high court ruled Monday that Benjamin should have stepped aside in a case involving Massey Energy because Massey CEO Don Blankenship contributed large amounts of money to a campaign to oust Warren McGraw, Benjamin's opponent in the 2004 general election.
"We are jubilant that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Harman Mining Company," said David Fawcett of the Pittsburgh law firm of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. "Everyone has a right to a fair trial and an unbiased judge under the Constitution. The idea that a corporate CEO could spend millions to influence the result in a case was a broadside attack on our system of justice.
"We are proud we won this battle -- clarifying that judges who receive the benefit of vast sums of money from a corporation, or a corporate executive, must step aside from hearing important cases where the corporation is a litigant."
Caperton, operator of Harman Mining Company, had sought Benjamin's recusal from hearing a case involving Massey's appeal of a $50 million verdict against it for fraudulently harming Harman's business.
The state Supreme Court twice overturned the verdict in Massey's favor. Benjamin refused on both occasions, even though Massey chief Don Blankenship spent about $3 million on a campaign aimed at unseating Benjamin's Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, former Justice Warren McGraw.
Caperton contended that Benjamin was biased toward Massey because of Blankenship's campaign expenditures targeting McGraw.
"My clients have fought a 10-year battle against a man who promised to spend millions of dollars to tie them up in court challenges if they pursued the case," Fawcett said. "Hugh Caperton and his companies have showed extreme courage throughout this ordeal. At one point, their legal rights were confirmed and vindicated by a jury and trial judge, only to suffer a reversal on appeal where it appears that monetary contributions affected the ability of the court to be fair.
"If the Court had allowed this case to stand, then people with money would have been granted a license to contribute vast sums of money to elect judges to effect results in specific cases. As stated by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a crusader against the improper influence of money on our courts, "An independent judiciary is an essential bedrock principal, and we're losing it ... We put cash in the courtrooms, and it's just wrong."
Monday's ruling means the U.S. Supreme Court has sent the case back to West Virginia for further proceedings.
"We now look forward to re-arguing our case before the West Virginia Supreme Court and achieving justice for not only Hugh Caperton but the many miners and others who were hurt by Massey's unscrupulous business tactics and greed," Fawcett said.
Meanwhile, Massey Energy officials said the company is disappointed by Monday's ruling, but remains optimistic.
"Obviously, I would have preferred a different decision and believe the decision made by the court is another infringement on states' rights and Freedom of Speech, et al, but it's the world we live in today," Blankenship said. "A conservative such as I am can only hope that the tide turns before our country drowns."
Andrew Frey, who represented Massey in the case, expressed disappointment as well.
"Beyond that, I think the Court is fooling itself to suppose that it hasn't opened a Pandora's Box," said Frey, who works for Mayer Brown in New York. "The logic of this decision -- such as it is -- would potentially apply to a host of circumstances in which the appearance or probability of bias is at least as great as in this case.
"I might add that we still feel good about the merits of our appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court and expect to prevail when the case is reheard.
Massey VP and General Counsel Shane Harvey echoed Frey's sentiments.
"While we are disappointed in the outcome of the Court's close vote, our outlook about the ultimate resolution of this legal matter remains positive," Harvey said. "We are confident that the Harman case was properly decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court initially and believe that any new examination of the same facts and same laws by new justices should yield the same result as before."
In a statement, Gov. Joe Manchin said the ruling illustrates the need for officials to look at ways to improve the judicial system. Manchin suggested such a commission in his State of the State address.
"Today's Supreme Court decision is one more piece of information that needs to be considered in making recommendations about our judicial system and any reforms that the Independent Commission on Judicial Reform may recommend," Manchin said. "The commission's study and any subsequent changes to the organization of our court system are important to ensure that our citizens have confidence in their judicial system in West Virginia."