West Virginia Chief Justice, recipient of $3 million contribution from litigant, reluctantly recuses himself
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in November it should take a look at the case of West Virginia Supreme Court justice, Brent Benjamin. Benjamin accepted three million dollars worth of support from the Massey Energy Co. when he ran for office in 2004, but declined to recuse himself from cases involving Massey. Then he voted with a 3-2 majority to overturn a significant jury verdict against the company. Needless to say, the discussion over the merits of that verdict has been subsumed beneath the discussion over whether Massey "bought" relief in the high court.
West Virginia law does not explicitly spell out any obligation that Benjamin withdraw from cases involving major campaign supporters, and he maintains that it is not improper for him to decide cases involving Massey. Twenty-seven former justices from 19 state supreme courts disagreed, however, and have filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the high court to rule that Benjamin's failure to recuse himself was erroneous and creates such a strong appearance of bias that it constitutes a violation of the Constitution. In response, Benjamin has reluctantly temporarily disqualified himself from Massey appeals until the Supreme Court hands down a ruling. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court, fairly political itself of late, finds the retired judges' brief to be persuasive.
Michigan also does not have explicit recusal rules, and the "Engler Majority" of conservative judicial activists consistently quashed the efforts of Supreme Court Justice Betty Weaver and others to impose a set of recusal standards. As a result, Michigan is susceptible to the same appearance of impropriety that has tarnished West Virginia's judiciary, and many observers believe that its decision-making has been equally tarnished: they point to Chamber of Commerce boasts, in particular, of multi-million dollar contributions and having achieved what the Chamber set out to purchase--a friendly judiciary.