Op-ed Praises Public Financing in W.Va. Court Elections, Cites JAS

West_Virginia_quarter,_reverse_side,_2005It has taken time to restore the integrity of West Virginia’s courts, but that effort is proceeding apace and has been helped by the public financing of judicial elections, approved in 2010, writes the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.

In a West Virginia Record commentary, Paige Flanigan cites Justice at Stake in discussing the impact of big spending and special interests on public confidence in fair and impartial courts:

“The problem is the ‘new politics of judicial elections.’ According to the national Justice at Stake campaign, ‘cash has become king in judicial elections’ and ‘elected Supreme Courts have been Ground Zero of an unprecedented money war.’ According to its figures, from 2000 – 2009 more than $206.4 million was raised by Supreme Court candidates nationally. That figure is double what was raised in the 1990s – and doesn’t include the millions more being spent in ‘independent’ campaigns. Public confidence in the impartiality of our courts has been damaged.”

(more…)

Blankenship, Famous for ‘Caperton’ Role, Sentenced to Prison

U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Donald L. Blankenship on Wednesday to a year in prison on his misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety in the wake of a 2010 blast that killed 29 workers.

When Blankenship was Massey CEO, his big spending to elect a top West Virginia  judge led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 about runaway spending in judicial elections, Caperton v. Massey. The political spending episode became a poster child for judicial reform advocates.

A jury had acquitted Blankenship of multiple felony counts. He was also fined $250,000. “My main point is wanting to express sorrow to the families and everyone for what happened,” Blankenship said in court. He added later, according to The New York Times, “I am not guilty of a crime.” His prison term was the maximum sentence possible on the misdemeanor count.

The Times depicted the latest chapters of Blankenship’s story as historic: “It was virtually unthinkable not long ago that Mr. Blankenship, whose company was central to West Virginia’s coal industry, would ever stand before a judge for sentencing in this state. When a federal jury convicted Mr. Blankenship of a misdemeanor charge in December, the United States attorney said it was the first time such a high-ranking corporate executive had been found guilty of a workplace safety crime.”

Judge Berger is a coal miner’s daughter, according to The Times.

Journal Has Proceedings From Event on Caperton and Judicial Recusal

justice-scalesThe proceedings of a symposium about judicial recusal, five years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Caperton v. Massey ruling in 2009, and related scholarly articles are now available online from a periodical that collaborated in holding the event.

The NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy joined with the Brennan Center for Justice and the the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility in bringing together speakers for the 2014 session, and the Journal has published the proceedings and related articles, according to Election Law blog.

Here are the symposium events and speakers: Opening Remarks by Wendy Weiser; “Caperton and the Courts: Did the Floodgates Open?” with Adam Liptak, Keith Swisher, James Sample and Bradley A. Smith; “The State of Recusal Reform,” with Charles Geyh, Myles Lynk, Robert S. Peck and The Honorable Toni Clarke; “A View (more…)

Will Judicial Recusal Issue Be Considered by High Court Again?

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to take up a judicial recusal appeal from Wisconsin argued on the basis of Caperton v. Massey, it could help set ethics standards nationwide, a Mother Jones article says.

Caperton is a landmark Supreme Court ruling about runaway special interest spending in judicial elections. In the current legal dispute, reporter Pema Levy writes, the high court could be asked to decide whether two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices should have recused from a case involving a campaign finance investigation. The Wisconsin court’s ruling shut down the investigation  of possible violation of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in 2011 and 2012 recall elections. (more…)

Blankenship Convicted After Fatal Coal Mine Explosion

s-DON-BLANKENSHIP-largeA federal jury in West Virginia convicted Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, on Thursday of a charge of conspiring to violate mine safety in the wake of a 2010 blast that killed 29 workers.

When Blankenship was CEO of Massey Energy, his big spending to elect a top West Virginia  judge led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 about runaway spending in judicial elections, Caperton v. Massey. The political spending episode became a poster child for judicial reform advocates.

A New York Times article said the jury acquitted Blankenship of charges of  making false statements and securities fraud. The Associated Press said he was convicted on a misdemeanor count, and acquitted on more serious counts. He could face up to a year in prison.

Scholar Spotlights ‘Revelations’ Years After ‘Caperton’

Two recent revelations show that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was right when he wrote in Caperton v. Massey about runaway spending in a state judicial election and getting access to, and ingratiation from, elected officials, election law scholar Rick Hasen writes at National Law Journal:

  • Then CEO Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, the big spender in the Caperton case, is on trial on charges in a coal mine explosion. At trial, a recording was played in which he rued that a picture of him and a state Supreme Court justice was “all over WSAZ,” a TV station. Anyway, Blankenship said, “I won…saved Massey $70 million.” Photos of Blankenship and that justice vacationing in France were published; Blankenship’s spending was in support of a candidate for the high court, who once elected, declined to recuse in civil litigation involving Massey and then cast a deciding vote in favor of striking down a $50 million award against the company.
  • The latter justice, Brent Benjamin, recently told a group at the University of Virginia, “I was tone deaf in not recusing myself in Caperton.”

(more…)

Commentary: Prosser Off Base in Declining to Recuse

justice-scalesWisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser relied on weak legal arguments when he declined to recuse himself from a court opinion that shut down a controversial campaign finance investigation, Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign writes at Madison.com.

Prosser recently issued a 15-page explanation of why he declined to recuse (see Gavel Grab). A special prosecutor had asked him and another justice to do so, pointing to spending by several groups involved in the investigation that benefitted the campaigns of Prosser and the second justice.

Rothschild disputes specific legal points cited by Prosser but also looks at the case through the lens of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling about runaway judicial election spending, called Caperton v. Massey: (more…)

Wisconsin ‘John Doe’ Ruling Stirs Ongoing Controversy

630px-Seal_of_WisconsinThe Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling that there were no violations of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-recall campaign and conservative groups continues to stir controversy on both sides. The ruling in the “John Doe” case  effectively halted further investigation of the alleged collusion.

In a scorching commentary supporting the ruling, The National Review Online  said the investigation of alleged violations was nothing short of a “witch hunt” perpetrated by state Democrats.  A report in the Wisconsin State Journal noted that the Wisconsin court’s majority described the investigation as a “dragnet” involving “highly publicized raids” of private homes.

But a piece in the LaCrosse Tribune  focused on the failure of several state Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves, although they had benefited from millions of dollars in campaign spending by the same conservative groups at the center of the case.  Prosecutors might have the option to appeal the ruling in federal court, the Tribune suggested, citing legal experts who named the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in the landmark Caperton case as a possible precedent.

In the same Tribune piece a conservative legal scholar disagreed, noting that “if elected judges had to recuse themselves from cases involving groups that donate to their campaigns, then so would judges who were targets of campaign spending,” according to the report.  Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty told the paper that if a broad view of the Caperton decision were adopted, “‘it’s basically impossible to have judicial elections’ because there will always be an array of political parties supporting or opposing judges.”

As Blankenship Prepares for Trial, Renewed Attention to ‘Caperton’

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in a landmark runaway election spending case, Caperton v. Massey, is getting renewed attention as a key player in the West Virginia Supreme Court election at issue prepares to face a criminal trial.

In “The People v. the Coal Baron,” a New York Times magazine article, writer David Segal profiles Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, who faces criminal charges in connection with a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 men. The article examines Blankenship’s political influence when he was Massey CEO. (more…)

Column: W.Va. Justice Benjamin to Face a Re-Election Challenge

scAttorney Beth Walker is preparing to announce that she will seek a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court held by Justice Brent Benjamin, who’s seeking re-election, a column in the WV MetroNews reports.

Walker unsuccessfully sought election in 2008 as a Republican, and Justice Benjamin is a Republican, but judicial elections in West Virginia will be non-partisan starting next year. Walker’s announcement would represent a “substantial challenge” to the incumbent, Hoppy Kercheval writes in the column, but the trial attorneys belonging to the West Virginia Association for Justice have not been heard from yet.

Justice Benjamin had a role in events that preceded a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2009, Caperton v. Massey, about runaway judicial election spending. The U.S. Supreme Court said Justice Benjamin could not hear a case involving a coal company whose chief executive had spent $3 million toward the judge’s election.

Citing the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause, which grants every litigant the right to an impartial trial, the high court said a “serious risk of actual bias” was created when Justice Benjamin cast the tie-breaking vote to overturn the jury’s decision in the case.