CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin recently said the reputations of public officials can be unfairly linked to independent groups that support them.
Benjamin, whose refusal to recuse himself in a case involving a large campaign supporter is the subject of an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, made the comments on Decision Makers, a television show produced by West Virginia Media.
Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million through an independent expenditure group called "For the Sake of the Kids" in the 2004 election, hoping to put Benjamin in then-Justice Warren McGraw's seat.
"I don't think that politics has any business in the administration of justice," Benjamin told host Bray Cary.
"Money and politics have been a problem, or have been perceived as a problem, since the very beginning... but certainly it is an issue that we need to address here. Obviously, we're on hold right now.
"In my race, we had (independent expenditure groups, groups that operate outside the candidates. The candidates have no control whatsoever about what these groups do or who they are.
"And sometimes for the candidates it is difficult because people perceive they do have some input when they don't."
Benjamin's non-recusal from a $50 million case involving Massey has been the subject of much debate and will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court March 3.
Harman Mining won its case against Massey over a broken coal supply contract, but twice Benjamin was in the majority of a 3-2 decision overturning it. The first decision was set aside because photographs surfaced of former Justice Spike Maynard and Blankenship, lifelong friends, together in Monaco.
Harman alleges Benjamin should have recused himself from the case because of Blankenship's support. Benjamin voted against hearing Massey's appeal of a $220 million verdict against it last year.
Also discussed on the program was the first full week of work for two new justices, Margaret Workman and Menis Ketchum. Workman, though, has previously served on the Court.
"Our job is not to agree with each other always," Benjamin said. "If we always agreed, we'd only need one justice. The key is working together."
He also said he looks forward to the return of Justice Joseph Albright, who has been recovering from surgery for several months. Former Justice Tom McHugh has been filling in.
"Justice Albright is doing better. He's a fighter," Benjamin said. "He's had a tough battle. He's been in a tough battle. Those people who know Joe know he is a fighter."
Benjamin said he is hopeful Albright will rejoin the Court for this term. He added that all the clamoring for a guaranteed right to appeal is misconceived by the public because the justices always review the briefings, even in the appeals they don't accept.
"There is a review of every single petition for appeal that comes down," Benjamin said, noting a pair of recent large verdicts the Court decided not to review.
"What you had were five justices who sat down and looked at every bit of briefing material that was sent down. The record, they had their staff looking at it.
"This all happens automatically for every case we look at, and we are one of the busiest, if not the busiest court, of our type, according to national statistics."
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.