Justice Benjamin, We Hardly Knew Ye. (Oh, Wait, Yes, We Did…)

by Elizabeth Wydra, Chief Counsel, Constitutional Accountability Center

As discussed here and here, the Caperton v.A.T. Massey Coal Co. case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court asks whether West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin’s refusal to recuse himself from a high-stakes appeal involving a major contributor to his judicial election campaign violated the Due Process Clause’s guarantee of an impartial decision-maker. While a personal relationship between Benjamin and Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal and the person responsible for over 60% of the total expenditures made in support of Benjamin’s candidacy, is not dispositive of whether due process required Benjamin to step aside when a Massey Coal appeal came before him, the Supreme Court might consider it relevant. Thus, it was notable when counsel for Massey in the Supreme Court asserted in their brief (page 55) that “[t]here is no indication that Blankenship and Justice Benjamin even knew one another, before or after the election.”

Except there is. And they did.

The West Virginia Gazette reports that on March 30, 2006, Blankenship had dinner with Benjamin, former Supreme Court Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard (seen here vacationing on the French Riviera with Blankenship), and Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, at the Athletic Club Sports Grill at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston. Massey Coal sought review in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals of the approximately $50 million verdict against it just a few months later, in October 2006. So, while Justice Benjamin may not have been partying in Monaco with Blankenship, he certainly should have been able to put a face to the name on the campaign check.

Again, the existence of a personal relationship between Benjamin and Blankenship is not the reason Benjamin’s decision not to recuse himself — and, instead, to cast the deciding vote in favor of Massey — violates due process. But Massey has engaged in a strategy of ridiculing the “debt of gratitude” that Benjamin was supposed to have felt toward Blankenship after he donated millions of dollars, far beyond the amount donated by any other campaign supporter, to get Benjamin on the state’s high court. As part of this strategy, Massey’s Supreme Court brief repeatedly disclaims any personal or social relationship between Blankenship and Benjamin. The fact that they do, indeed, know one another should therefore be clarified and corrected before the Court.