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

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


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 Mother Jones reporting on Dark Money

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

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

Donate