Case: Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company

Date: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Issue: Did the decision by the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to not recuse himself from a case involving his principal financial supporter violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment?

Background: Brent Benjamin won his seat as the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court in a 2004 statewide election. The man who is perhaps most responsible for Benjamin's spot on the court is Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal one of the largest companies in the Mountaineer State. Blankenship spent $3 million in advertisements to help Benjamin's cause. That amount represents 60 percent of all money spent on behalf of the Benjamin campaign. There is no argument that the donations were legal.

After the election, Blankenship's company appealed an adverse $50 million judgment to the West Virginia State Supreme Court now presided by the man he help put there. Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case saying there was no conflict of interest and his ability as a jurist would not impact his ability to render a fair decision. Benjamin cast the deciding vote in Massey's favor setting aside the $50 million judgment.

The losing side in the dispute—a collection of smaller coal companies—contends their Due Process rights were violated by Benjamin's decision to remain in the case. In its brief to the Supreme Court they argue Benjamin's presence "created a constitutionally unacceptable probability" of bias. Lawyers for Massey Coal contend recusal is necessary only when a judge has a "pecuniary" interest in the outcome. Something they say is not at issue in this case. They also point out that Justice Benjamin has voted against them at least five other times in cases totaling in excess of $243 million. Earlier this year, Benjamin announced he would no longer take part in Massey Coal cases saying it would be disrespectful while the matter is before the Supreme Court.

This case is seen by some interests as a prime example why judges shouldn't be elected in the first place. The case also closely parallels the 2008 John Grisham book "The Appeal."

Case: Arthur Anderson v. Carlisle

Date: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Issue: This case is about the availability of relief under the Federal Arbitration Act when third parties attempt to force arbitration in federal courts.

Background: After Wayne Carlisle and two associates sold their construction business they wanted help in setting up tax shelters for their profits. They eventually partnered with a firm called Bricolage who worked with other companies setting up the shelter. As part of the agreement with Bricolage, Carlisle and his business partners signed a contract providing for arbitration in case of a dispute.

As it turned out, the IRS said the shelter was illegal and initially allowed Carlisle some extra time to make good on his tax obligations. But Carlisle says the firm the IRS reached out to never informed him of that grace period. Eventually the IRS cracked down on Carlisle for the failure to pay his original tax burden and added fines and interest all totaling in excess of $20 Million.

Carlisle sued Bricolage and eight other interests saying they were responsible for his tax mess. The arbitration agreement with Bricolage was enacted—but only with Bricolage. The other eight firms were left to defend themselves in court. They argue they too should be covered by the arbitration agreement.