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U.S. Supreme Court

Court Asked to Rule in 3 Disputes over Fairness of W. Va. Justice System

Posted Oct 13, 2008 7:39 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide this week whether the Constitution required the recusal of a West Virginia Supreme Court justice who received more than $3 million in campaign contributions from the chief executive officer of a corporate litigant.

The case is one of three before the court involving the West Virginia justice system, the New York Times reports. It targets Justice Brent Benjamin for his deciding vote to overturn a $50 million verdict against the CEO’s company, Massey Energy Co. The amount at stake has risen to more than $76 million with interest.

The ABA has urged the Supreme Court to take the case. The association contends Benjamin’s conduct creates an appearance of impropriety that would violate Canon 1 of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct.

The case, Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., contends the due process clause required Benjamin to decline to hear the case. Benjamin says a judge is not required to recuse himself unless there is proof of actual bias, according to the Times story.

In a second cert petition, Massey is asking the court to disqualify another justice, Larry Starcher, from all the company’s cases for criticizing its CEO, the story says. Starcher said CEO Don Blankenship was “trying to buy influence like buying candy for children.” The case is Massey Energy v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp.

A third cert petition in NiSource v. Estate of Tawney targets West Virginia for failing to allow at least one appeal for companies ordered to pay large punitive damage verdicts. West Virginia is one of only two states—Virginia is the other—that don’t guarantee at least one appeal in civil cases, the story says.

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