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Vacation photos of W.Va. justice spark criticism

European vacation photos are fueling a push to have West Virginia's chief justice removed from a $76.3 million case that involves his travel companion's coal company.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 claim they 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."

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

Maynard should also withdraw his vote from that ruling, which reversed a $76.3 million judgment won by Caperton and Harman, according to the motion.

"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.

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

Seaside photographs in question
The photos include at least three of Maynard with Blankenship, including two along a seaside and one at an outdoor cafe. Each bears a different time stamp date, and the men have different clothing in each. Ten other photos were filed under seal, and 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."

Blankenship said Tuesday that the meeting with Maynard wasn't totally 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.

The vacation pictures prompted a memo Monday from a fellow justice urging the court administrator to preserve any evidence of "inappropriate contacts" between the two men.

Justice Larry Starcher, a vocal critic of Massey, wants the court administrator to ensure that no documents are destroyed or records "on servers or otherwise, of any document or digital photographs, be altered, removed or erased."