Justice Starcher steps down from Massey Energy case

By Scott Finn  

A second justice on the West Virginia supreme court has taken himself off a case involving Massey Energy.  

Justice Larry Starcher says he wants to restore the public’s confidence in the court after it received international attention for alleged conflicts of interest in the Massey case.  He’s also calling on the third member of the court, Justice Brent Benjamin, to also remove himself from the case.   

Until now, Starcher has ignored calls to remove himself from the case. But in a news release, Starcher says, “I am stepping aside, hoping that Justice Benjamin does the same, so we can end the public controversy and restore confidence in our Court by having five totally impartial judges hear the appeal.”  

Benjamin benefited from more than $3 million spent by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to help his 2006 campaign. In the past, Benjamin has declined to take himself off other Massey cases.  

The case in question involves a 2004 $50 million verdict against Massey. With interest, damages had climbed to $76 million by the time it reached the Supreme Court. In November, the court voted 3-2 to overturn that verdict. But lawyers for plaintiffs Harman Mining and its owner, Hugh Caperton, convinced the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision after pictures emerged of Justice Spike Maynard vacationing in the French Riviera with Massey CEO Don Blankenship.  Maynard removed himself from the case after the pictures became public.

The plaintiff’s lawyers and Massey Energy asked Starcher to step down from the case because he called Blankenship “a clown” and told the NY Times that it makes him want to “puke to see massive amounts of out-of-state money come in and buy a seat on our court.”  

Hugh Caperton’s lawyer, Bruce Stanley, says that Benjamin has no excuse for staying on the case now.  

“We commend Justice Starcher on his decision to step down from this case in his effort to preserve the integrity of this court,” Stanley said. “How Justice Benjamin can ignore the obvious and continue to sit on this case, especially as the acting chief justice with his power of appointment, is disturbing and inexplicable.”  

Massey Energy spokesman Jeff Gillenwater did not immediately return a phone call Friday afternoon.  

The West Virginia court controversy has garnered national and international attention. Earlier this month, bestselling author John Grisham compared Benjamin’s election to the events in his new book, The Appeal. In the book, the owner of a chemical company tries to get out of paying a $41 million settlement by spending millions to help elect a justice to the Mississippi Supreme Court. 

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