Jim Rodman Jan. 12, 2014

While this case is being pilloried by the press, one of the cases cited by the court in Citizens really caught my eye. That case, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company was decided by the Supremes. So here’s a brief discussion of the Massey Coal Co. case. It takes place in West Virginia, but winds up at the US Supreme Court, hereinafter, “The Supremes”

Caperton sued Massey Coal Company and got a $50 million verdict. Of course, the coal company appealed the verdict. While the appeal was pending, there was an election. The election was for a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court, which was going to consider the coal company’s appeal. A guy named Brent Benjamin was running for the seat. He was running against an incumbent. So, the coal company’s CEO decides he’ll support Benjamin. And he supports him big time, to the tune of $3 million dollars! Of course, this makes the coal company (or at least its CEO), Benjamin’s largest donor. With the help of the coal company’s $3 million, Benjamin gets himself elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

So now the stage is set. The coal company’s appeal goes before the West Virginia Supreme Court, which now includes Judge Benjamin (who some might say, has been bought and paid for by the coal company). Caperton’s lawyers are not stupid, they move to disqualify Benjamin, saying he’s biased based on the $3 million he got from the coal company. Benjamin refuses to step aside. Now guess how he votes. Of course, he sides with the coal company; and the vote is 3-2 in favor of the coal company to reverse the $50 million verdict against the coal company. So Benjamin’s vote could be considered to be the tie-breaker in favor of the coal company. And the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling took away the $50 million judgment in favor of Caperton.

Not to be cynical here, but it kind of looks like by spending $3 million to get Benjamin elected, the coal company saved itself $50 million. Caperton appeals the verdict to the US Supreme Court (again, “The Supremes”) saying that Judge Benjamin, by not disqualifying himself, denied Caperton due process of law. As noted by The Supremes in an earlier case, “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.”

A happy ending: The Supremes got it right, and held that by not disqualifying himself, Benjamin denied Caperton “due process.” I mean who could argue that $3 million dollars wouldn’t bias a judge, right? Well, 4 members of The Supremes, with a straight face dissented and said the fact that Benjamin was probably biased by getting $3 million from one side, shouldn’t result in his disqualification. In the world of the dissent, having a judge who is probably biased against you decide your case, well, is just fine. Those four judges were CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, JUSTICE SCALIA, JUSTICE THOMAS, and JUSTICE ALITO.

I wonder if any of these four gentlemen, had $50 million at stake, or were facing prison, they would feel like having a judge rule on their case who was “probably biased” against them would be OK. I doubt it.

Finally, one funny side note: While Caperton’s appeal was pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court, a photo surfaced of one of the justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court vacationing on the French Riviera, with guess who? You got it, the CEO of the coal company.