Buying Justice in West Virginia
"When you've got to choose between a guy who released a pedophile and a coal executive, it's a tossup," the man said. He thinks he's being a wiseass. Of course, you'd choose the law-abiding coal executive. Wouldn't you?
The man in question is a tough-talking West Virginian named Don L. Blankenship. When ABC News tried to interview him about pictures showing him in Monte Carlo with a justice of the state's Supreme Court, Blankenship is reported to have said that someone was "liable to get shot" if the questioning persisted. It's the sort of two-dimensional chatter one would expect to see in a John Grisham novel. But it is real, all too real.
Blankesnhip spent about $3 million of his own money to unseat a justice of the State Supreme Court, Warren R. McGraw. Once the judge was unseated, and a new justice seated, the Court ruled 3-2 to throw out a $50 million verdict against Blankenship's company, Massey Energy. Blanksenhip regards this as mere serendipity. "Electing somebody hoping he's going to be in your favor doesn't make any sense at all," he asserts. If Blankenship is as big a fool as he pretends, I propose that he write me a check for $3 million. I mean, what the Hell; if you're going to piss it away without regard to the consequences, throw it my way.
Whether the new justice, Brent Benjamin, should have recused himself from the vote on Massey Energy is now before the United States Supreme Court. Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal will be argued March 3.
Thirty-nine states resort to elections of some sort to select judges. This results in judges soliciting contributions from the very lawyers before whom they appear. There are sometimes bitter elections turning on the popularity of a judge's decision in a particular case.
In West Virginia, Don Blankenship decided he wanted a change on the court. So he anted up $3 million and sent his flunkies to work scouring Justice Warren McGraw's voting record. The stooges hit pay dirt. A youth who was abused as a child himself abused a half brother. The young man was fourteen when himself was transformed from victim to defendant. At the age of 18, he was released on probation. Judge McGraw joined in the Supreme Court's decision in this case.
Blankenship's whores dressed the decision up as a decision to release a pedophile into the schools. "Being the street fighter that I am," Blankenship boasts, he knew he had hit pay dirt. He'd found a way to stir passions. West Virginia's very own Willie Horton. "That killed him," Blankenship boasts with a smile. Justice McGraw was toast.
So let me get this straight: We don't want justices who care about the rights of the accused and the unpopular? We want a justice who knows what big business needs. But when we spend millions on an election we don't really care about the outcome. We're just good citizens. Perhaps that plays out behind an Appalachian shack where folks struggle to read the label on a whiskey bottle. Or in boardrooms where barons pray that money will buy justice. It looks like swill from where I sit.
Electing judges is a horrible idea. Passion, privilege and wealth are often blind to what justice requires. Blankenship illustrates that. He is a caricature. If states are free to determine how to select their judges, then Congress ought at least to give to the people the right to remove state claims to federal court. When justice is for sale in state courts, the people should be able to seek justice in a location far removed from the pig's trough.