Is Three Times A Charm for the West Virginia Supreme Court in Massey v. Caperton?

The legal battle between Hugh Caperton and the huge Massey Coal Company, which prompted one of this past Supreme Court term’s most important constitutional rulings, is far from over.

Yesterday, Marcia Coyle at BLT reported that the West Virginia Supreme Court has set Sept. 8 as the date for rehearing the infamous appeal that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this past June, at which time Hugh Caperton will once again face Massey Coal in what will hopefully conclude this saga of pay-to-play justice.

To review the details (so astonishing they prompted a recent John Grisham book), Massey Coal Company and its affiliates have been trying to overturn a 2002 jury verdict that requires the company to pay Caperton $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages, after the jury found that Massey had unlawfully interfered with Caperton’s business relations and committed fraud in negations to purchase a coal mine. With the appeal of the verdict headed to the West Virginia Supreme Court in 2004, Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Coal, worked to get a judicial candidate named Brent Benjamin elected to that court, spending nearly $3 million. Blankenship’s expenditures totaled more than 60% of the total amount spent in support of Benjamin’s election.

Once Benjamin was seated on the state Supreme Court, he refused to recuse himself from hearing Massey’s appeal, despite complaints from his fellow judges over the possibility that Benjamin’s consideration of the appeal by a corporation whose CEO was his single largest campaign supporter could create the appearance of bias. Instead, in November 2007, Benjamin cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 ruling to overturn the verdict against Massey, prompting one dissenter to call the majority’s opinion “morally and legally wrong.”

Following the ruling, Caperton sought to have the appeal reheard, and asked that three of the five judges – including Benjamin – be disqualified. One judge agreed to recuse himself after photos emerged of him vacationing on the French Riviera with Don Blankenship, while another recused himself following his forceful public criticism of Blankenship’s role in the 2004 judicial elections. The third judge, Benjamin, once again refused to recuse himself, and once again cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 ruling that overturned the jury verdict against Massey. This time, dissenters called the majority opinion “fundamentally unfair” and noted “genuine due process implications under federal law” following Benjamin’s refusal to step aside.

All this led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule last month (in Caperton v. Massey) that Justice Benjamin’s refusal to recuse himself did indeed violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and prompted the Court to remand the case for a third hearing by the West Virginia Supreme Court without Benjamin’s participation.

CAC encouraged this outcome in our amicus brief representing a coalition of national, state and local organizations committed to preserving judicial independence, in which we explained that the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment require a fair system of justice in every court throughout the country.

According to the BLT, only one of the judges involved in the first two hearings will be on the panel this time (ahem, not Benjamin), and there will be no new briefing. Stay tuned to Text & History for follow up on this case.