CHARLESTON – A national court advocacy group wants U.S. Senators to grill Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about her views on judicial impartiality and recusal during the confirmation process.

The Justice at Stake Campaign says the issue of political influence on the national judiciary has come to the forefront following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court related to a controversial West Virginia decision in a Massey Energy appeal.

The group has urged the Senate to pose 10 questions to Sotomayor on issues including the importance of judicial impartiality and when a judge should recuse his or herself from a case to avoid ethical problems.

"The confirmation process is a unique opportunity to urge nominees to educate the public on the importance of courts that are fair, impartial and independent," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, in a statement.

"These questions, like many others being submitted to senators, stand in contrast to recent trends in state judicial elections, where questionnaires are sometimes used to threaten ballot box retribution if judges don't rule on behalf of interest group agendas."

The group sent a letter June 19 to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to begin hearings on Sotomayor's nomination on July 13.

In its letter, the group cites a case arising in West Virginia involving a coal operator, Hugh Caperton, and Massey.

Caperton's company, Harman Mining, had won a $50 million jury verdict in a case against Massey in 2002.

Massey appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which on two occasions overturned the verdict.

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin voted in Massey's favor both times. Caperton repeatedly asked Benjamin to step aside from re-hearing the appeal because Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent about $3 million to defeat Benjamin's opponent in the 2004 general election, former Justice Warren McGraw.

Benjamin resisted calls for him to step aside. Caperton subsequently appealed Benjamin's decision to stay on the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 earlier this month that Benjamin should have stepped down to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Dissenters in the opinion, including Chief Justice John Roberts, said the decision would open the door for lawyers to go shopping for judges.

Gov. Joe Manchin recently appointed a commission to study the state's judiciary. Issues on the table include whether the state should continue to elect its judges and justices by political party and recusal rules.

Justice at Stake bills itself as a "nonpartisan national partnership that works to protect courts from special interest and partisan pressure."

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