Legal Ethics

W. Va. Top Court Rehears Coal Case, Without Two Justices

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West Virginia’s top court heard a dispute between two coal companies, one defunct and the other the nation’s fourth-largest, for a second time yesterday. This time, though, two justices have recused themselves amid allegations that the CEO of the bigger company wielded too much influence on the court.

Novelist John Grisham has said the case helped inspire his legal thriller, The Appeal, the Associated Press reports.

The court reheard the case with two replacement circuit judges and is expected to issue a ruling by June, the Wall Street Journal reports. The legal issue is whether a $50 million verdict against the Massey Energy Co. should be tossed out because the issues in the case were decided in a prior lawsuit. But the dispute has been dwarfed by criticism over the influence wielded in the case by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

One of the justices who stepped aside was Chief Justice Elliott Maynard, who had posed alongside Blankenship in photos taken on a Monaco vacation. Maynard recused himself after the photos were anonymously given to the lawyer for Massey’s courtroom opponent, a smaller coal company that contends Massey interfered with its business and forced it into bankruptcy.

The second justice who stepped down, Larry Starcher, was a dissenter in the court’s original 3-2 ruling in the case. He had claimed that Blankenship essentially bought a seat on the court when he gave $3 million to the campaign of Justice Brent Benjamin, a member of the majority. He also criticized Blankenship in public comments, calling him “a clown” and stupid, the Charleston Gazette reports.

Benjamin remained on the case, saying the campaign contribution did not influence his judging.

State Sen. John Yoder told the Wall Street Journal that state laws allowed Blankenship to contribute such large amounts. “I just think that the rules need to be changed, and the system is wrong,” he said.

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