Saturday, July 11, 2009

Campaign Finance Reform: Fate of Massey Energy – Harmon Mining case rests in the hands of a substitute Judge

The West Virginia Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case between Massey Energy and Harmon Mining, for the third time. The September 8th hearing will be different this time. West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice, Brent Benjamin, will not be on the bench to hear the case. Instead, a retired Circuit Court Judge, James Holliday will be on the bench as a result of the United States Supreme Court ruling on June 9th of this year.

In an effort to gain a more favorable ruling in their case against Harmon Mining, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, bankrolled the Judicial Election Campaign of Brent Benjamin to the tune of $3 million in the 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court election. Those efforts paid off and Massey Energy received favorable rulings in their legal battles with Harmon Mining until the United States Supreme Court ruled against Massey Energy.

In a 5 to 4 ruling, the Unites States Supreme Court ruled that “Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when - without the consent of the other parties - a man chooses the judge in his own cause," and went further to say "Not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a probability of bias that requires a judge's recusal, but this is an exceptional case,”. The Supreme Court also found there was no evidence of judicial misconduct with West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin.

Ruling in the majority were Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens. Ruling in the minority were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

In Virginia, State Supreme Court justices are appointed to the bench. But, Virginia’s state campaign finance laws do not limit contribution amounts and allow direct contributions from businesses and corporations. The only requirement Virginia’s state campaign finance laws require is full disclosure of any contributions of $100 or greater.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), from 2005 through today, the Coal Mining and Processing sector of Energy and Natural Resources has contributed $2.58 million to Virginia state candidates. Massey Energy has contributed $128,000 during this period, all to Republicans in Virginia. The leading contributors are Alpha Natural Resources (Abingdon), VA Coal Association (Richmond), Richard Baxter Gilliam (Keswick), Consol Energy Inc. (Pittsburg, PA), and Cumberland Resources Corp. (Abingdon). Again, the lion’s share of contributions have gone to Republican candidates in Virginia.

All of these contributions are a far cry from the $3 million that Don Blankenship contributed in 2004 to Brent Benjamin. The legal costs in case between Massey Energy and Harmon Mining have now grown to more than $84 million.

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