CHARLESTON – Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship says he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling this week regarding a West Virginia-based judicial recusal issue doesn't dissuade others from "speaking out."
While Monday's ruling said Benjamin should have recused himself to avoid the appearance of bias, the majority offered no guidance to states in how to deal with any future such problems.
"It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court's ruling is being reported as a matter of corporate influence and judicial review," Blankenship said in a personal statement released Wednesday. "This is not and was not ever about the company I have served for more than 27 years or the industry I have worked for the majority of my entire life."
The High Court on Monday ruled 5-4 that West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin should have stepped aside in a case involving Massey Energy. The ruling means the U.S. Supreme Court has sent the case back to West Virginia for further proceedings.
Hugh 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 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.
In his statement, Blankenship noted that he often has spoken out about trying to "help change West Virginia for the better." He also said he is troubled by ratings and rankings that have West Virginia at or near the bottom in terms of business and quality of life.
"In 2005, I worked to defeat a pension bond referendum that likely saved West Virginia pensioners $1.5 billion," he said. "In 2006, I fought to repeal the state food tax, which I believe hurts the state's working poor."
He said the 2004 Supreme Court election was no different.
"I decided to oppose the candidacy of Justice Warren McGraw because I felt that his decisions and behavior were typical of the problems we have faced in West Virginia and Appalachia for too long," Blankenship said. "I was not the only one. Doctors and business and civic leaders voiced great opposition to Justice McGraw.
"Every newspaper, but one, endorsed Justice McGraw's opponent Brent Benjamin, and he won the election by a wide margin. Nearly every business leader in West Virginia opposed McGraw's candidacy in the primary election but felt he was unbeatable in the general election, yet hardly any of these businesses had cases before the court."
Blankenship went on to note some of the reasons he wanted McGraw off the bench.
"Simply put, I helped defeat a judge who had released a pedophile to work in a local school, who had driven doctors out of state, and who had cost workers their jobs for 30-plus years," he said in the statement. "I think this effort helped unchain West Virginia's economy and benefited working families.
"I have never heard the out-of-state lawyers who have attacked me explain, or even be asked, why they made contributions in support of Justice McGraw. I have also never seen them involved in any other issue of civic concern in our state.
"Like millions of other Americans I contributed my time, my energy and, yes, my money to oppose a candidate I disagreed with personally and politically."
Blankenship did say he remains optimistic that Massey will prevail when the case is heard again by the state's highest court.
"I hope the Supreme Court's ruling will not silence others from speaking out when change is needed," he said. "West Virginia has made significant strides since the defeat of Justice McGraw. Further improvement will only continue if West Virginians feel that they can freely exercise their right to ask for better government."