Friends turn foes for justice's re-election in West Virginia

AP News
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Posted: Apr 28, 2016 1:35 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — In 2004, former coal baron Don Blankenship spent $3.5 million to help get a West Virginia Supreme Court candidate elected in a wild race that inspired a John Grisham novel.

At the time, Blankenship's company, Massey Energy, had a $50 million case pending before the court. Blankenship's Republican candidate, Brent Benjamin, won the election, and Benjamin and two other justices later ruled 3-2 in Blankenship's favor in the Massey case, saving the company a massive payout.

Now, 12 years later, Blankenship is headed to prison for a mine safety conspiracy and Benjamin is facing his first re-election fight — and opposition from many of the same people who once supported him.

Benjamin says he was never Blankenship's buddy and the money the coal CEO funneled into a political group known as "And for the Sake of the Kids" didn't influence him.

"Everyone who was involved in that group, the And for the Sake of the Kids, is with another candidate" now, Benjamin said. "I think that sent a pretty strong message that I was independent, and even though, at the time, it may have been hard to see. Certainly, actions speak louder than words."

The political group with the rosy name pounded Benjamin's old foe, former Democratic Justice Warren McGraw, as soft on crime and bad for business. The entire ordeal inspired the book "The Appeal" — which tells the story of a chemical company that loses a $41 million lawsuit in Mississippi for causing cancer deaths. Its top executive hand-picks a conservative, naive small-town lawyer, Ron Fisk, to run for the Supreme Court and be the swing vote his company needs to ultimately win the lawsuit.

Benjamin believes "The Appeal" was written about the Mississippi Supreme Court. Grisham has said the story "already happened" in West Virginia. Either way, the election gives Benjamin the opportunity to write a post-script for the character, and himself.

This year, Benjamin is running the antithesis of what helped him get elected. In the middle of a five-way race, he is using a public campaign finance option that is at the center of his message to voters: he has remained un-swayed as a jurist, even by the flushest of special interests.

The public option and third-party money have become sticking points in the race.

Benjamin has called for the Republican State Leadership Committee to take down ads blasting his opponents and said the courts should "remain independent of any special interests or political groups."

Outside spending has already topped $1.1 million. The leadership committee has spent $722,700 on negative ads while a trial lawyers group poured in another $229,000 in ads attacking conservative candidate Beth Walker.

The state's public campaign financing option, which lets Supreme Court candidates access up to $525,000 after certain requirements are met, was started in 2012 in response to the Blankenship-Benjamin election.

And because of the Massey case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

This year, for the first time, court candidates won't run with a party label, and the race will be decided on primary day May 10 — no runoffs or general election.

The advocacy group Justice at Stake says it doesn't know of any other state that elects justices this way, said spokeswoman Laurie Kinney.

About half use competitive elections — the majority of them nonpartisan — while the others mostly use bipartisan commissions to pick justices, according to the group.

For Blankenship, the election comes two days before he's scheduled to head to prison.

On April 6, the once widely influential coal boss was sentenced to a year in prison for a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 men.

Blankenship is hoping to convince an appeals court to keep him free until a higher court decides his case. He hasn't brazenly puppeteered West Virginia politics in years, but his former operatives still play vital roles in Republican circles.

Roman Stauffer, who heads West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and joined And for the Sake of the Kids after the 2004 election, said those groups weren't as close with Benjamin as perceived. Stauffer's group is now opposing Benjamin and supporting Walker. They cite Benjamin's decisions against health care organizations and a personal injury case that the group thought should not have been brought in West Virginia.

"I think that Justice Benjamin happened to be the candidate who made it through the primary election in 2004, and the groups involved, it was their goal to defeat Warren McGraw and to see someone else," Stauffer said.

McGraw lost, and his brother, former Supreme Court justice and longtime former Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw, is now one of the front-runners in this year's race.

The other candidates include Bill Wooton, a former Democratic lawmaker, who is also using public campaign money, and Wayne King, a Democratic attorney in Clay County who calls Benjamin "Justice Blankenship Benjamin."

"Obviously, Don Blankenship bought his seat 12 years ago, and that's one of the reasons I'm running," King said.