Legal Ethics

Vacation Photos Prompt W. Va. Chief Justice to Recuse in Coal Case

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Photos filed with a recusal motion have led the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to step aside in a pending case to avoid an appearance of impropriety.

The photos showed Chief Justice Elliott Maynard posing with a coal company CEO during a Monte Carlo vacation. Maynard voted with a 3-2 majority in December to overturn a $50 million verdict against the CEO’s company, which had grown to more than $70 million with interest included.

Maynard explained his decision in a statement, the New York Times reports.

“I have no doubt in my own mind and firmly believe I have been and would be fair and impartial in this case,” Maynard said. “The mere appearance of impropriety, regardless of whether it is supported by fact, can compromise the public confidence in the courts. For that reason—and that reason alone—I will recuse myself.”

The newspaper says it is not clear how the 3-2 ruling will be affected. If Maynard withdraws only from a motion to reconsider the judgment, the 2-2 tie would allow the supreme court decision in favor of the CEO’s company to stand. If the recusal affects the court’s 3-2 decision, the 2-2 tie would affirm the original judgment. Or the court could bring in a retired judge to rehear the case.

Meanwhile, mining companies that won the judgment against the CEO’s company, Massey Energy, are seeking the disqualification of a second justice in the majority, Brent Benjamin, the Times article says. The motion says Benjamin should step aside because he was elected with the help of more than $3 million in ads and other support from the CEO, Don Blankenship.

An editorial in the Herald-Dispatch praises Maynard’s decision and says the incident could lead to further reform.

“It must be noted here that West Virginia is a small state, and campaigns are increasingly expensive,” the editorial says. “But candidates for any court must be exceptionally careful when their friends and donors come before the court, and they must be even more careful with whom they choose to socialize with after the election.”

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