Gavel Grab

Investigative Report Questions ‘Lear Jet Justice’ in West Virginia

WV Supreme Court SealOnce again the West Virginia Supreme Court is the topic of a critical, hard-hitting news report. It questions whether election-year fundraising and a private Lear Jet deal tipped the scales of justice, or at least gave that appearance.

The ABC News report by Brian Ross is entitled, “Lear Jet Justice in West Virginia? A ‘Circus Masquerading as a Court.’” Not long ago, West Virginia became the poster child for critics of runaway judicial election spending in a case that brought disrepute to the court and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Caperton v. Massey ruling (see the JAS web page for background). Here is the heart of the new ABC report:

“As a $90 million jury verdict was wending its way to the West Virginia Supreme Court, the lawyer handling the nursing home abuse case did more than prepare appellate briefs and ready himself for oral arguments. He was, critics said, pulling every lever available to him to try to give his client an edge outside the legal system — lining up thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for the court’s chief justice and negotiating a private deal to buy a $1.3 million Lear Jet from her husband.

“When the nursing home case finally reached the state’s high court earlier this year, Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis wrote the majority opinion upholding the jury verdict for the client of lawyer Michael Fuller, though lowering the final payout to just over $40 million. The cut for Fuller’s firm: more than $17 million — one of the largest payouts he’s ever secured.”

Chief Justice Davis did not disclose the airplane deal and says she was not required to do so because her husband was involved, not her. But James Sample, a Hofstra University expert on judicial ethics, said the episode did “not look good for the rule of law.”

Sample explained, “A million-dollar sale of an airplane while litigation involving the lawyer who purchases the airplane is pending before the court? Absolutely no question. It’s proper to disclose, and it is improper to not disclose.” He concluded, “This is a circus masquerading as a court.”

Less ready to reach conclusions was Stephen Gillers, who teaches at New York University’s School of Law. “Is there smoke here?” Gillers said, “Yes. Is there fire? We don’t know.”

According to ABC News, lawyer Fuller worked hard raising money for Justice Davis’s reelection campaign in 2012. “Overall, people with ties to Fuller and his legal team in the nursing home case donated more than $35,000, state records show.” Fuller had been based in Mississippi and he opened a satellite office in West Virginia eight years ago.

Said Paul Farrell, a West Virginia attorney hired by Fuller to help with the case, “As long as we are still electing judges, we’re going to have this underlying specter of financial influence.” He added, “There’s always going to be that issue hanging there.”

There was coverage of the ABC investigative report in the Daily Mail, Charleston Gazette, and West Virginia Record. Chief Justice Davis was quoted by the West Virginia Record as saying, “Not only was the story not fair, but the way ABC News presented themselves was beneath contempt.” She said the ethics experts quoted by ABC “clearly” don’t know West Virginia or its system of judicial recusal.

“My fellow justices and I consistently follow the recusal process followed by every federal court in the country and the United States Supreme Court,” she said. “If my husband has a financial interest in a case that comes before the Supreme Court, I have always recused myself and I shall always do so.”

A Charleston Daily Mail editorial asked, “Is the state a judicial hellhole for all but the big money donors?”

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