The West Virginia coal mining disaster that took more than two dozen lives this week brought Massey Energy Corp., the nation’s fourth largest coal company, into the spotlight. The company and its CEO, Don Blankenship, have never been shy about involvement in the political process. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Massey’s political action committee plus individuals associated with the commpany have given more than $307,000 in all to federal candidates since the 1990 election cycle. The overwhelming majority – 91 percent – has gone to Republicans.
Blankenship spent several million dollars on top of that in a 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court race, becoming a poster boy for those who oppose traditionally funded judicial elections and the conflicts that attach themselves to campaign contributions in such races. Blankenship’s favored candidate, Brent Benjamin, won the election, and proceeded to rule in Massey’s favor in a case brought by a smaller coal company. The smaller firm claimed that Benjamin should have recused himself, taking the claim all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 2009, the Court agreed, saying in Caperton v. Massey that "the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”
Blankenship likely never expected that his involvement in the court race would become an impetus for turning West Virginia into a model for those wanting to overhaul state judicial selection. Last month Gov. Joe Manchin signed into law a pilot program that will provide candidates for the state’s highest court with public financing in 2012, as long as they abide by voluntary spending limits. West Virginia is now just the fourth state to publicly finance judicial elections, along with North Carolina, New Mexico and Wisconsin.