In a CNBC interview last week, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co., answered questions stemming from a recent decline in his company’s stock. When asked to respond to a New York Times editorial highlighting Massey’s legal trouble and his suspect dealings with the West Virginia courts, the CEO dismissed the facts as skewed, and would not acknowledge that his actions posed any conflict of interest.
While it is unclear how Blankenship managed to keep a straight face during the interview while denying that even the perception of a conflict of interest exists—even the news anchors on the pro-business CNBC appeared to find Blankenship’s answers unsatisfactory—what is clear is that events like these make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for state courts to preserve public confidence.The appearance of impartiality is not satisfied just because, according to Blankenship, Justice Brent Benjamin ruled against Massey in previous cases. The exorbitant sum and timing of the campaign expenditures in this case poses significant concerns regarding the floor of due process. As courts continue to be inundated with special-interest campaign money, it becomes increasingly important for states to beef up on back-end procedures like recusal. Imposing recusal standards would be swift, visible and right in line with improving the appearance of fairness and impartiality in our courts.
Although Blankenship would like to believe that his actions only received attention due to “the location in the world”—the French Riviera—where he and Chief Justice Elliot “Spike” Maynard dined, advocates for the right to a fair hearing before an impartial arbiter—in appearance and in actuality—know better. The U.S. Supreme Court should use this opportunity to provide much—needed guidance with respect to the basic elements of due process.