Impartiality Still an Issue After WV Judge's Riviera Scandal

It takes a lot for a sitting Supreme Court justice to lose an election, but Elliot Maynard managed....

May 15, 2008

It takes a lot for a sitting Supreme Court justice to lose
an election, but Elliot Maynard managed. On Tuesday, as the
New York Times reports
, the chief
justice of West Virginia's
Supreme Court lost his re-election bid, though he began as the clear favorite
and despite the fact that he had raised the most money.

coincidence?
The trouble for Maynard's campaign started back in January, when
photos surfaced of the Chief Justice (on the left), in 2006, enjoying a vacation on the
French Riviera with none other than Don Blankenship, the chief executive of one
of West Virginia's
largest mining companies. A harmless, jet-setting friendship? Well, Blankenship
happened to have a multi-million dollar
case pending before Maynard's court at the time. A few months later, Maynard
voted with the majority in the 3-2 decision to overturn a $50 million judgment
against Blankenship's company.

Maynard wasn't the only one involved in this mess.
Another justice, Larry Starcher, recused himself from the case based on the
fact that he had been critical of Blankenship's bestowal of wealth and
influence on the court.  He also demanded
that his colleague, Brent Benjamin—who had received over $3 million in
campaign contributions from Blankenship—do the same. Benjamin, ignoring the
most basic tenets of common sense, not to mention the judicial ethics code
mandating recusal whenever a judge's "impartiality might reasonably be
questioned," flat out refused to do so.

Maynard eventually recused himself from hearing future cases
involving his pal Blankenship, but he remained mystified that the photographs
had raised such controversy. He maintained
that
"his long-time friendship with Mr. Blankenship was well known and had
no bearing on his rulings." Talk about Justice being blind.

Maynard may have not had the time on his French Riviera
getaway to question his own impartiality, but voters certainly did—perhaps in
no small part due to the $170,000
one labor group spent on advertising to publicize the photos, though runaway
spending in judicial elections
is a topic for another blog post.

As the Brennan
Center's James Sample
shows in his recent paper "Fair
Courts: Setting Recusal Standards
," judges and justices across the country
are not recusing themselves when their impartiality is in question, like when
they have accepted large campaign contributions. For Maynard, the voters have
decided to "recuse" him, permanently.  We
have no opinion as to whether that result is, or is not, salient in the long
run.  What we do know is that with Justice
Benjamin still refusing to recuse, unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to
review the case, Blankenship's tactics will have succeeded in compromising a
court.

The loser in the Blankenship case happened to be
another mining company that did not "pay to play." But in the long run, it was
an even greater loss for due process.