Former U.S. justice will serve on governor's court commission

Justin Anderson Jun. 15, 2009, 2:45pm


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has agreed to serve as the honorary chairwoman of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's special commission on state courts, his office announced today.

"We are truly honored that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has accepted my invitation to serve as the Honorary Chairwoman of this important commission," Manchin said in a statement. "She brings special expertise and a wealth of knowledge to this panel."

The commission was created through an executive order signed by Manchin earlier this year.

It's goal is to study whether reforms should be implemented in the state's judiciary, including whether to continue with partisan elections for judges or switch to merit-based selection; whether to start a court that handles only business disputes; tweaking campaign finance reporting; and whether to create an intermediate court of appeals.

The commission's report to the governor is due on Nov. 15, 2009.

Other members of the commission include:

-Carte Goodwin, Manchin's former general counsel now in private practice;

-Joyce McConnel, dean of West Virginia University's law school;

-Sandra Chapman, president of the State Bar;

-Caprice Roberts, associate dean of the WVU law school;

-Lawyers Thomas Heywood, Marvin Masters, Andy MacQueen and John McCuskey; and

-Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts.

Manchin commented that all the appointees are "extremely qualified" to carry out the study assignments.

The appointments come on the heels of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving state Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin.

Last week, the federal court, in a 5-4 ruling, said Benjamin should have stepped down in a case involving Massey Energy.

The justices said the $3 million Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent to unseat Benjamin's opponent in the 2004 election was excessive and created a probability of bias.

Despite Blankenship's involvement, Benjamin repeatedly refused to recuse himself from hearing Massey's appeal of a $50 million verdict in Boone County. The winning side of that verdict, Harman Mining Company, had requested Benjamin step down from the case.

Benjamin had twice voted in favor of overturning the verdict.

Harman's operator, Hugh Caperton, appealed Benjamin's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in last week's decision.

It is unknown when or how the state Supreme Court will reconsider the Massey appeal in the wake of the decision.

The state Supreme Court's recusal rules leave it up to the individual justice to decide whether or not to step down.

Massey has a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Charleston targeting the rules, arguing that they violate a party's right to due process.

The judge in that case has yet to return the case to the active docket after both sides agreed to a stay of the matter until the U.S. Supreme Court spoke on the Caperton appeal.

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U.S. Supreme Court
1 First St NE
Washington, DC 20543

National Center for State Courts
300 Newport Ave
Williamsburg, VA 23185

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