The West Virginia Supreme Court yesterday, for the third time, reversed a $50 million jury verdict in a case that triggered a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June on the recusal of judges because of campaign contributions.
The state Supreme Court voted 4-1 to overturn the award for Hugh Caperton, a coal mining company owner who had accused a competitor, Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, of interfering with Caperton's contracts and driving his company into bankruptcy.
Caperton twice had sought to remove justices on the state high court because of personal or political relationships with Blankenship when the latter appealed the jury award.
In the case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, Caperton argued that his due process rights had been violated when Justice Brent Benjamin refused to recuse himself from reviewing Blankenship's appeal even though Blankenship had contributed $3 million, directly and indirectly, to help Benjamin defeat an incumbent state justice.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the majority agreed with Caperton. Kennedy, focusing on the relative size of the campaign expenditures compared to others in the campaign, as well as its effect on the election outcome, said there was a serious risk of actual bias.
On remand, and without Benjamin's participation, the West Virginia court reversed the jury award because, it said, a forum selection clause required any legal disputes stemming from the 1997 coal contracts to be litigated in Buchanan County-- a county in which the statute of limitations had run on Caperton's claims.
Caperton's counsel, Bruce Stanley, partner in Pittsburgh's Reed Smith, would not say that the ruling was the end of the line for Caperton.
"It's a shame that there has been yet another miscarriage of justice in this lengthy saga," he said. "While we have not had the opportunity to review the opinion in detail, even a cursory review raises a number of serious constitutional concerns. Certainly we will consider all alternative avenues of relief going forward."
But Massey Energy seems to think the legal saga is over.
In a company statement, Shane Harvey, vice president and general counsel, said, "The court's decision represents a total vindication of Massey Energy's longstanding legal position. We are pleased that this decision today brings this lengthy legal proceeding to an appropriate close."