Don Blankenship Is Heading to Prison. But His Allies Still Bought a Judicial Election in West Virginia.

A state Supreme Court candidate funded by the coal baron’s allies won big on Tuesday night.

Don Blankenship, left, leaving a courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia, last fall.Chris Tilley/AP


West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship is slated to start a one-year prison sentence on Thursday after being convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety rules in the lead-up to a massive explosion in one of the mines run by the company he led, Massey Energy. But his legacy still hangs over West Virginia politics.

On Tuesday, his allies helped elect a business-friendly justice, Beth Walker, to the state Supreme Court by pouring at least $2.5 million into the race, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. It’s a strange ending to a story that began 12 years ago, when Blankenship spent $3 million to unseat a liberal justice and replace him with a Charleston attorney named Brent Benjamin, who went on to vote to overturn a $50 million judgment against Massey Energy.

The US Supreme Court ultimately ordered Benjamin to recuse himself from the case. The whole episode so reeked of corruption that it inspired John Grisham novel and a public financing system for judicial races in West Virginia. But over the course of Benjamin’s 12-year term on the bench, Blankenship’s allies determined that Benjamin was not conservative enough and decided to try to replace him with Walker.

Last year, Republicans in the state legislature reformed the process for electing Supreme Court justices. Whereas the old system had the political parties nominate candidates for a November election, the new system features a nonpartisan election on the primary election date, allowing a large number of candidates to compete. The result is that the winner need only take a plurality of votes among a potentially divided field. That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday. With most precincts reporting by Wednesday morning, Walker won a 12-year term with about 40 percent of the vote, followed by liberal candidates Darrell McGraw (the brother of the justice Benjamin beat in 2004) and Bill Wooten. Benjamin came in fourth place, with less than one-third of Walker’s vote total.

More MotherJones reporting on Dark Money

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Give a Year of the Truth

at our special holiday rate

just $12

Order Now

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.