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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....

  • Maggie Barron
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.