RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- The Virginia Supreme Court has revived a legal battle between coal companies that has been fought over the last 15 years in courts in Virginia and West Virginia.
The justices unanimously ruled Thursday that a Buchanan County judge erred when he dismissed a breach of contract lawsuit against Richmond-based Massey Energy. Hugh Caperton claims his companies were financially damaged when Massey slashed the amount of coal it had agreed to buy.
A West Virginia jury in 2002 awarded $50 million to Caperton, but that verdict has been rejected three times by the West Virginia Supreme Court. The case was shifted to Virginia, where a judge said the issues had already been resolved by previous rulings. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that he issues in the Virginia filing are different.
Justice Brent Benjamin has been under heavy scrutiny for ruling in Massey's favor after CEO Don Blankenship spent millions of dollars on Benjamin's election campaign.
Throughout all this, Benjamin still claims he did nothing wrong, but by a 5-4 vote, the court said that staying involved in a lawsuit filed against the company deprived the other side of the constitutional right to a fair trial.
With multimillion-dollar judicial election campaigns on the rise, the court's decision Monday could have widespread significance. Justice at Stake, which tracks campaign spending in judicial elections, says judges are elected in 39 states and that candidates for the highest state courts have raised more than $168 million since 2000.
The high court reversed the decision, which was in favor of Massey, and sent it back to the West Virginia Supreme Court for new consideration.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion of the court, with support from Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer.
Kennedy's opinion calls this situation "extreme" and one that will not affect other cases or elections. The opinion acknowledges Massey's claim that with this decision there will be "a flood of recusal motions to unnecessary interference with judicial elections." However, Kennedy's opinion states "the facts now before us are extreme by any measure. The parties point to no other instance involving judicial campaign contributions that presents a potential for bias comparable to the circumstances in this case."
In one of two dissenting opinions, Chief Justice John Roberts argues that this decision will open the doors for more motions claiming judicial bias. Roberts opinion states even with a 1.1% success rate on certiorari petitions, there were some 8,241 filed with the high court last term. He predicts this decision will bring the court into "undeserved disrepute and diminish the confidence of the American people in the fairness and integrity of their courts."
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a seperate dissenting opinion in which he predicts "many billable hours will be spent in poring through volumes of campaign finance reports, and many more in contesting nonrecusal decisions through every available means."
Justices Thomas and Alito joined the dissenting opinion.
Massey Energy released the following statement after the decision
"While we are disappointed in the outcome of the Court's close vote, our outlook about the ultimate resolution of this legal matter remains positive. We are confident that the Harman case was properly decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court initially and believe that any new examination of the same facts and same laws by new justices should yield the same result as before," said Shane Harvey, Massey Vice President and General Counsel in a statement on Massey's website.
Statement from Chief Justice Brent Benjamin
"As an appellate judge, I have the highest respect not only for the judicial process, but also for the Justices on the United States Supreme Court. It is obvious from the argument in March, the 5-4 vote of the Court, and the diversity of opinions from the Supreme Court, that the issue in the Caperton case was not an easy one. I thank the Justices for their consideration.
I am pleased that the Supreme Court has not questioned my ethics, my integrity, or my personal impartiality or propriety. As a personal matter, that is very important to me and I appreciate the fact that the Justices made a specific point of clarifying that issue.
In focusing on the issue of due process, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion recognizes that there is no “white line” to guide judges like me in resolving the issue of an elected judge’s duty to remain on a case versus the need to remove oneself due to external factors.
The Supreme Court’s new standard appears to focus on the perceptions created regarding the impact on due process in a given case caused by the activities of persons other than the judge in question. Specifically, the Supreme Court focuses on whether there may be a risk to due process in a case when an external party’s influence in a given situation, such as in an election, is sufficiently substantial that it must be presumed to engender the potential for actual bias by a judge despite there being no direct relationship between the judge and the external party, and despite the lack of any benefit to the judge.
This is a very fact-specific new standard. The focus of “potential for bias” now places more due process emphasis on perceptions and independent actions of external parties than on a judge’s actual conduct or record. For example, my four-year record of voting 81 percent of the time against Massey’s interests would now be only a part of the factors to be balanced in a recusal consideration.
I am confident that there will be a lot of posturing and politicizing about this decision from all sides, as there has been with so many aspects of this case. Such a response would be counter to the philosophy of removing politics from the court, which all fair-minded people share. I would hope instead that the decision be given a fair and sober reading, and that it be respected as all decisions of the United States Supreme Court should be."
Statement from The West Virginia Supreme Court
“The West Virginia Supreme Court will follow the United States Supreme Court mandate.”
The office would not release any other details on Monday.
Statement from Massey Energy
"While we are disappointed in the outcome of the Court’s close vote, our outlook about the ultimate resolution of this legal matter remains positive. We are confident that the Harman case was properly decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court initially and believe that any new examination of the same facts and same laws by new justices should yield the same result as before” said Shane Harvey, Massey Vice President and General Counsel.
The United States Supreme Court has determined that the West Virginia Supreme Court must revisit its 2008 ruling that reversed a 2002 verdict by the Circuit Court in Boone County to award $50 million to Harman Mining Corporation and its president, Hugh Caperton.
Massey Energy Company, headquartered in Richmond, Va., with operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, is the fourth largest coal producer by revenue in the United States and is included in the S&P 500 Index.
Statement from Governor Joe Manchin
"Today's Supreme Court decision is one more piece of information that
needs to be considered in making recommendations about our judicial
system and any reforms that the Independent Commission on Judicial
Reform may recommend. The commission's study and any subsequent changes to the organization of our court system are important to ensure that our citizens have confidence in their judicial system in West Virginia."
Statement from Republican Party
The United States Supreme Court’s decision today on the Massey-Caperton case has far-reaching implications regarding independent expenditures on state Supreme Court races that will ultimately affect all sides of past and future elections, state GOP Chairman Doug McKinney said today.
McKinney said that one of the most important distinctions to be made in today’s decision is that Chief Justice Brent Benjamin’s ability to remain impartial was not questioned by the justices. Instead, justices focused on the “perception” of bias, which is a standard that will be difficult to determine and likely lead to a flood of recusal requests.
“The Supreme Court has today established a new recusal standard based on perception rather than on actual bias,” said McKinney. “The result will likely be a flood of recusal requests that will further create a bottleneck of backed up cases in our judicial system.”
The narrow 5-4 decision seems to create another “I know it when I see it” standard much like a previous landmark decision on pornography cases, McKinney said.
“By failing to define exact standards for recusal, the court has unfortunately opened a can of worms that will simply lead to more confusion and debate,” said McKinney.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the dissent, “This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be. The end result will do far more to erode public confidence in judicial impartiality than an isolated failure to recuse in a particular case.”
McKinney noted that even Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, made it clear that the court was not impugning Justice Benjamin’s integrity or impartiality.
As Kennedy wrote of Benjamin, “We do not question his subjective findings of impartiality and propriety. Nor do we determine whether there was actual bias.”
Said McKinney, “By admitting that it is not questioning Justice Benjamin’s impartiality and propriety, or whether there was actual bias, the court is unfortunately muddying the waters even further, rather than bringing clarity to the issue.”
Hugh Caperton, president of Harman Coal Co., sued Massey Energy Co. in 1998, alleging that it used fraudulent business practices to destroy his company, according to the "Justice at Stake Campaign" website.
In 2002, a West Virginia jury agreed, awarding Harman $50 million.
In 2004, while appealing the judgment, Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million on an independent campaign to back lawyer Brent D. Benjamin. Benjamin defeated Justice Warren McGraw in November 2004.
Justice Benjamin rejected a motion to recuse himself from the case in 2007 and then, cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 decision to overturn the $50 million judgment. That's when the appeal was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is a case that goes far beyond the bank accounts of major coal companies.
Jeff Coleman from Grundy Virginia spent Wednesday afternoon in Charleston because he needs thousands of dollars.
“It's an everyday thing. Especially when collecting agencies from the doctors and the hospitals come to you and you don't have the money to pay them,” Coleman said.
$15,000 is what it will take to stop the bill collectors from calling.
It has been ten years since Harman mine owner Hugh Caperton alleged Massey Energy illegally took that mining contract that cost him that money.
A Boone County jury originally ruled in favor of Harman.
The state supreme court overturned the multi-million dollar verdict.
Then Justice Elliott Spike Maynard entered the fray. Over the last several weeks, pictures surfaced of him with Massey CEO Don Blankenship in Monaco on vacation.
The pictures took place during a time in which Maynard and other justices were deciding the Massey vs. Harman case.
The pictures gained national attention. Harman Mine owner Hugh Caperton cried foul.
Maynard stepped down from the case, which brought both sides back to court this week.
There are about 150 other miners that also need payment. The money is from their medical costs.
Eventually the United Mine Workers covered the costs of the displaced miners’ benefits.
The union says they're owed $13 million plus interest.
Thursday's decision comes in a case marked by conflict of interest allegations directed at the justices.
The 5-0 decision erases November's 3-2 ruling that had overturned a verdict won by Harman Mining and its president, Hugh Caperton, in a coal contract dispute with Massey.
Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard did not take part in today's action. He recused himself after the release of vacation photos showing him with Don Blankenship, Massey's chairman, president and CEO, while the judgment was headed for appeal.
Hampshire County Circuit Judge Donald Cookman replaced Maynard for the rehearing petition. Justices Brent Benjamin and Larry Starcher also took part in Thursday's vote, having weathered allegations of bias regarding Massey as well.
The supreme court will re-hear the case March 12, 2008.
Here's a statement just issued by Massey Energy:
"We respect the Court’s decision to take another look at this case. We remain confident, however, that the Court will ultimately uphold its prior decision. While there has been a great deal of media attention regarding this case, nothing has changed the facts or the law that the Court will consider in reaching its final decision.”