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Archive for the ‘Caperton’ Category

Reform Advocate Joins WA Supreme Court

An advocate for limits on campaign contributions to judges and for public financing in judicial elections will take the oath of office for the Washington Supreme Court next month.

Lawyer and former state appeals court judge Charlie Wiggins defeated incumbent Justice Richard Sanders in a razor-thin victory in November; when Wiggins was certified the winner, he captured only 50.34 percent of the vote, according to a profile of the jurist in the Kitsap Sun.

“You can’t peg him as an activist or nonactivist judge, or a liberal or conservative,” said University of Washington law professor Bill Anderson. “I don’t think he’ll blaze any trails in any direction. I think he’ll just be a professional judge. Consistent, honorable, objective.”

Wiggins wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Caperton v. Massey, on behalf of 27 former Supreme Court justices from 19 states.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for a West Virginia Supreme Court justice to hear a case involving the financial interests of a major donor to his election campaign, and it required the justice to disqualify himself.

According to Wiggins’ campaign website, he argued in the amicus brief that the new West Virginia justice’s ability to be impartial was compromised, and that a justice should not sit on a case involving a company that donated money to his or her campaign.

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'Coalfield King' Blankenship Suddenly Steps Down

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy whose big spending to elect a top West Virginia  judge led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, has suddenly stepped down from his post and will retire Dec. 31.

Blankenship has come under heavy fire since the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in April. Through a subsidiary, Massey owns that mine, site of the worst mining disaster in four decades.

An Associated Press article used unusually colorful language in reporting  the end of Blankenship’s almost three decades at the helm of Massey Energy, where he cut a high and controversial profile:

“Massey Energy Co. Chief Executive Don Blankenship, the modern-day coal baron who made millions for investors while turning countless neighbors into bitter enemies over environmental destruction, will wrap up his reign as the king of Central Appalachia’s coalfields at year’s end.

“Virginia-based Massey announced late Friday that Blankenship — respected and reviled in equal measure — will retire as chairman and CEO Dec. 31. That will end a 30-year career highlighted by huge profits, violent labor battles, feuds with federal regulators and a 2010 mine explosion that ranks as the nation’s worst coal mining disaster since 1970.”

“After almost three decades at Massey it is time for me to move on,” Blankenship said.

There have been numerous reports of possible takeover bids for Massey Energy. A New York Times article said Blankenship’s resignation could speed up a takeover.

Blankenship’s political spending became a poster case for judicial reform advocates when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision last year in Caperton v. Massey.

Blankenship spent $3 million in 2004 to help elect a West Virginia Supreme Court justice. His coal company went on to benefit from two critical votes by the justice to overturn a massive jury award against it.

In Caperton, the high court ruled it was unconstitutional for the justice to hear a case involving the financial interests of a major donor to his election campaign. It required the justice to disqualify himself.

You can learn more about Caperton from Gavel Grab, and from Justice at Stake’s resource page about the case.

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Blankenship to Testify in Mine Blast Probe

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, is expected to testify soon as part of a joint federal and state investigation into the the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia,  the worst mining disaster in four decades.

Blankenship was subpoenaed, according to a Charleston Gazette article.

Blankenship’s $3 million spending to elect a West Virginia judge in 2004 figured centrally in a landmark Supreme Court decision last year, Caperton v. Massey, about the risk posed by excessive special-interest spending in judicial campaigns.

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Caperton Lawsuit: 'Abuse of Justice'?

Hugh Caperton’s newly filed lawsuit against Massey Energy (see Gavel Grab) is drawing further news media coverage, from business journals to home-state press. The coverage has drawn attention once again to questions raised by Caperton about whether the West Virginia Supreme Court delivered impartial justice.

A Wall Street Journal article was headlined, “Massey Plaintiff Refiles.” In the West Virginia Record, a headline declared, “Caperton refiles Massey suit in Virginia.” You can also check out articles in the Charleston Gazette, from the Associated Press and WTRF-TV.

Allegations by Caperton (photo at left) about improper associations between state Supreme Court justices and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (photo at right) have drawn extensive mention in Gavel Grab. Caperton won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory about judicial recusal in an earlier round of litigation.

A West Virginia jury’s award of $50 million in favor of Caperton’s mining company, however, was overturned three times by the state Supreme Court on a venue issue. Now Caperton is trying to pursue his dispute in a Virginia court instead.

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Massey Calls New Caperton Suit 'Meritless'

Hugh Caperton’s latest round of litigation against old nemesis Don Blankenship and Massey Energy Co., the topic of a Gavel Grab post a day ago, gets full-length feature treatment in The New York Times today.

Massey Energy’s response to the new lawsuit, filed in Virginia by Caperton (in photo): It had not seen the lawsuit, the company said in a statement, but “Mr. Caperton’s claims have been rejected by the West Virginia court system multiple times, and we hope that his attorneys have not decided to waste more resources by seeking to bring a meritless case back to the Virginia court system.”

The Times on Caperton’s personal status: “Twelve years after the first lawsuit was filed, he remains unemployed, in debt and barred by the federal government from owning a coal company.”

Caperton’s remarks on allegations in his lawsuit that an appeal of a $50 million jury award in his company’s favor was not heard impartially by the West Virginia Supreme Court, when it included a justice who had vacationed with Blankenship, the Massey CEO: “I think that anyone can connect the dots and see what happened.” The high court overturned the jury award three times.

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Caperton Sues Massey, Again

Is there another round of Caperton v. Massey litigation ahead?

That appears to be the case. This sequel involves primarily a business dispute between Hugh Caperton and Massey Coal Co., and not the issue of a judge disqualifying himself from a case involving a major political backer, as did the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling by the same name in 2009. In his new lawsuit, Caperton accuses Massey of “attempting to buy justice” in  West Virginia’s highest court.

Caperton said he sued Massey today in Buchanan County, Va. courts, seeking $45 million in damages. A copy of the lawsuit said it contained “substantially identical” claims to those brought by Caperton and others in Boone County, W.Va. in 1998, alleging that Massey employed fraudulent business practices to destroy Caperton’s firm. A  jury agreed in 2002 and awarded a $50 million verdict in favor of Caperton’s company, Harman Mining.

On three occasions the West Virginia Supreme Court has voted to overturn that jury verdict. In November 2009 the court issued its ruling (see Gavel Grab) after Justice Brent Benjamin had recused himself due to a U.S. Supreme Court victory for Caperton.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that excessive campaign spending in a judicial election could force elected judges to step aside from some cases involving campaign supporters. Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship of Massey had spent $3 million to help Benjamin win election.

According to the latest Caperton lawsuit, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Caperton’s legal claims could be heard only in Buchanan County, Va. Among its allegations, the lawsuit  accuses Massey of “attempting to buy justice in the Supreme Court of West Virginia,” and it alludes to Blankenship and another justice,  Elliott “Spike” Maynard, vacationing together in the Kingdom of Monaco (in photo above, Blankenship is at right, Maynard at left).

You can learn more about that episode, and Justice Maynard’s defeat by voters, from Gavel Grab. He lost a primary in May 2008. More recently Maynard lost a bid for the House of Representatives against an incumbent Democrat.

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WV Justice Does Turnabout, Recuses Self

After his legal reasoning was questioned in the blogosphere, a West Virginia Supreme Court justice did a turnabout and announced he was disqualifying himself from a case that involves the state limit on punitive damages.

Justice Menis Ketchum said in a memorandum he saw no legal basis for his disqualification, but it appeared that “the lawyers who moved to disqualify me are attempting to create a ‘firestorm’ by assaulting the integrity and impartiality of West Virginia’s Supreme Court,” according to a posting by Tony Mauro in The Blog of Legal Times.

That blog had reported last week on Justice Ketchum’s initial decision not to disqualify himself, although he had made a campaign pledge that “I will not vote to overturn [the law], I will not vote to change it” (see Gavel Grab).

The civil case presents “a direct challenge to the constitutionality of the state Medical Professional Liability Act, which limits punitive damages in malpractice suits to $500,000,” according to the BLT blog.

Another West Virginia justice’s decision against recusing himself led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009, in Caperton v. Massey. Justice Ketchum’s new statement suggested that blog or press portrayals of the court figured heavily in his decision to recuse. Here is his unusual, entire new statement:

“Upon further reflection, I am disqualifying myself from the above case. I strongly believe there is absolutely no legal basis for my disqualification. See Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 (2002). However, it appears to me that the lawyers who moved to disqualify me are attempting to create a ‘firestorm’ by assaulting the integrity and impartiality of West Virginia’s Supreme Court.

“I promptly sent my disqualification response to the lawyers on September 23, 2010. The next day my response appeared in a Washington internet blog. (See copy attached.) How did a blog so quickly get my disqualification memorandum which was sent only to the lawyers in the case? Why is it newsworthy that a West Virginia judge previously exercised his right of Freedom of Speech? Read more

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WA Court Weighs New Recusal Rule

Washington state’s Supreme Court is considering a rule change requiring judges to disqualify themselves in cases involving large campaign backers. It is a direct response to a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The state Supreme Court is expected to discuss in September whether to adopt a rule requiring a judge to step aside if he or she benefited by receiving $16,000 in financial backing from a party to a case, according to a Tacoma News Tribune article. The proposal is aimed at at independent expenditure campaigns.

The proposal came from a task force of attorneys, judges and lay people and was a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Caperton v. Massey ruling. That decision found that large judicial campaign expenditures could create an unacceptable potential for bias. Read more

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Massey, Others Weigh Fall Political Ads

Massey Energy is one of two large West Virginia coal companies that plan to buy advertising in fall congressional elections, while taking advantage of a Supreme Court ruling that would let them do so.

Through a subsidiary, Massey owns the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, the site of the worst mining disaster in four decades. Some observers believe Massey and International Coal Group (ICG) want to stop new rules for mine safety that Congress started drafting after the disaster, according to a Public News Service report.

“They want to spend, on behalf of these candidates, blood money. Massey Energy and ICG are two of the companies with the worst safety records out there,” said Julie Archer of West Virginia Citizen Action.

A letter by Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel at International Coal Group, to other coal companies stated, “with the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard.” The large coal companies have been thinking about forming a group to “pump cash into state races,” a Huffington Post article reported.

The high court decision was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts directly on political advertising that is not coordinated with a candidate’s committee. Read more

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Scholar: Caperton Has Fueled Real Reforms

James SampleThe Supreme Court’s landmark Caperton v. Massey decision in 2009 already has led to improvements in protecting courts from the influence of campaign cash, according to a legal scholar’s draft law review article.

James Sample of the Hofstra School of Law (photo), and formerly of the Brennan Center for Justice, takes a look at state court reform developments in the year since the high court decision.

Sample’s draft article is entitled, “Court Reform Enters the Post-Caperton Era” (thanks to Rick Hasen’s Election Law blog for the tip.) Sample discusses reform efforts involving judicial recusal and public financing, chiefly in Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia (all of which Gavel Grab has tracked closely: click here for Wisconsin, here for Michigan or here for West Virginia). Read more

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