As Caperton v. Massey Energy wended its way through the courts in West Virginia, critics of judicial elections held it up as a case study in the conflicts of interest--real or perceived--that elected judges can confront. The West Virginia Supreme Court twice considered the case with three of the five justices facing conflicts that were doozies.
The case started out as a rather straightforward business dispute between one of the nation's largest coal companies and a small company that claimed unfair competition. But it quickly became an issue of judicial ethics when photos of Chief Justice Elliot "Spike" Maynard partying with Massey CEO Don L. Blankenship on the French Riviera emerged shortly after the high court had ruled for Massey in the case.
Caperton called for Benjamin to recuse himself, but Benjamin decided to hear the case--and served as acting chief justice, since Maynard was not presiding. The court again ruled 3-2 to throw out the original verdict against Massey.
In the latest ruling, two justices, including one sitting by special assignment, offered another strongly worded dissent: "Today's 'new' opinion of the Court rests on the same indefensible legal grounds as the original opinion."