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Top jurist under fire in W. Va. coal case

Photos intensify call for a recusal

Email|Print| Text size + By Lawrence Messina
Associated Press / January 16, 2008

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - In one picture, the men are sitting side by side, smiling over empty glasses at a cafe along the Riviera as the Mediterranean sun sets behind them. In others, they're posing by the seaside.

The European vacation photos have fueled a push to have West Virginia's chief justice removed from a $76.3 million case before the court that involves his travel companion's coal company.

The photos of Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard and Don Blankenship, head of Massey Energy Co., together in Monaco in 2006 were included in a revised motion filed Monday requesting that the justice remove himself from the case. Lawyers for a coal company with litigation against Massey allege the photos show the men vacationing together, and should disqualify Maynard.

State court rules require judicial officers to disqualify themselves from proceedings if their "impartiality might reasonably be questioned" or if they have "a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party's lawyer."

The lawsuit before the court, brought by Harman Mining Co., alleges that fraud committed by Massey plunged the company and its head, Hugh Caperton, into bankruptcy. Lawyers for Caperton want Maynard to step down from the case before the high court reconsiders its November ruling, which favored Massey.

The lawyers say Maynard should also withdraw his vote from that ruling, which reversed a $76.3 million judgment won by Caperton and Harman.

"It's outrageous for anyone to believe, that given the apparent relationship between these men, that a justice can be deemed to be above bias," said Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for Caperton.

Blankenship told the Associated Press yesterday that the meeting with Maynard wasn't a coincidence. Blankenship stayed in Monte Carlo and Maynard in nearby Nice, France.

"Judge Maynard and myself are friends," Blankenship said. "It just came out in conversation that we would be staying in the same place."

The two have known each other about 30 years and socialize a few times a year, Blankenship said, but it was the first time he met up with Maynard on vacation.

A court spokeswoman declined to comment. Maynard, who became chief justice this month, did not respond to messages requesting comment.

The photos include at least three of Maynard with Blankenship, two along a seaside and one at an outdoor cafe. Each bears a different time stamp date. Ten other photos filed under seal depict the men with two female companions, the motion said.

"The attached photographs clearly evidence the appearance of impropriety," the court documents allege, adding that the photographs raise "the specter of corruption or worse."

Justice Larry Starcher, a vocal critic of Massey, asked the court administrator Monday to ensure that no evidence or records submitted in the case are "altered, removed, or erased."

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