Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Small World of West Virginia

Two stories in the past two weeks have highlighted the "incestuous" links among public and private institutions in the rural state of West Virginia. The first noted personal links between the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, Elliot E. Maynard, and Don Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy. The two spent time together on vacation in Monte Carlo about a year before Justice Maynard voted with a 3-2 majority to overturn a $50 million jury award against Massey. Justice Maynard consistently maintained that he need not recuse himself because he could be fair and impartial.

These events reminded me of my discussion of judicial recusal in my 2006 article, Rural Rhetoric. I wrote:

[J]urists have characterized their states as rural due to their sparse populations and the familiarity such sparseness begets. For example, in 2000, a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court understated the conflicts of interest that arise for judges at all levels in a rural state when he argued that the judicial body should decide a matter regarding the former Chief Justice’s claim for benefits under the public employees’ retirement scheme. Declaring that “the buck does stop with us,” he added that, “being a rural state we are going to know some people.” More common conflict-of-interest problems are those which arise for trial judges in rural communities. These judges even more frequently know the parties and attorneys who appear before them. Commenting on rural judges’ acquaintance with local residents who may also be the parties appearing before them, a Tennessee appellate judge wrote in 1990, “if they were not so acquainted, there would be very little chance of their being elected judges.” (citations omitted).

Events in West Virginia seemed to go beyond the in "a rural state, we are going to know some people" scenario. I have no doubt that Justice Maynard should do what he finally did a few days after the story appeared: recuse himself from further consideration of the case.

The second story, which appeared yesterday, also highlights the nature of relationships among powerful people in rural states -- indeed, once again, West Virginia. The University of West Virginia is investigating whether records were falsified to show that the governor's daughter, Heather Bresch, was granted an MBA she did not actually earn. Ms. Bresch is employed by Mylan, Inc., the world's third largest generic drug company. Mylan employs 2000 workers in Morgantown, home to the flagship university. Because of the clout of Mylan, the University, and the governor himself, some have expressed concern about whether those with information about the matter are likely to come forward.

There may be reluctance ... to speak out against the university or Mylan, for fear of being blackballed by two of the state’s largest employers.

“In West Virginia, there is a proverb that says that everything is political except politics, and that is personal,” said Conni Gratop Lewis, a retired lobbyist for nonprofit groups. “It’s a tiny state, with just two major universities, just one major law school and where many of us grow up in the same small towns or counties, so there ends up being just one degree of separation between people involved in business and politics and whatever else.”

I'm not saying that such shenanigans only go in rural states, but there seems to be something about the "one degree of separation" among high-powered folks there that is conducive to such behavior.

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