In fact, the case became an inspiration for Grisham as he wrote his latest best-selling novel, “The Appeal.”
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a decision saying West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from Caperton v. Massey.
That's because Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million to help get Benjamin elected.
But in 2002, Blankenship was still a relatively minor player in politics. He was accusing then-Governor Bob Wise of unfairly targeting his company for environmental scrutiny.
Warren McGraw still sat on the West Virginia Supreme Court. Brent Benjamin was a little-known defense attorney and treasurer of the state Republican Party.
And in August 2002, a Boone County jury ruled in favor of coal company owner Hugh Caperton against Massey.
The jury found that Massey Energy forced Caperton’s mining company out of business – not in the survival-of-the-fittest way, but in the fraudulent, illegal, cheating way.
“It’s been devastating to me and my family, and it’s been devastating to all the miners who lost their jobs,” Caperton said.
The jury awarded Caperton $50 million in damages, triggering an appeal from Massey.
It also was the start of a long, strange story that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, and made West Virginia the poster-child for judicial ethics reform.
After the jury verdict, but before the state Supreme Court appeal, came the 2004 elections.
Blankenship had supported individual candidates before – a few thousand here, a few there.
This time, he spent more than $3 million to run an independent campaign to defeat McGraw, and install Benjamin in his place.
Then came ads saying that McGraw “voted to let a child-rapist out of prison, and court records show the plan called for the rapist to work at a local school.”
Those ads were sponsored by a new group called “And for the Sake of the Kids.”
It wasn’t until mid-October – not long before election day – that voters learned Blankenship was behind the campaign.
The ads were effective. But some of McGraw’s wounds were self-inflicted.
His rant at a Labor Day rally in Racine became known as “The Scream at Racine" and was used in GOP ads against him.
“They followed us through Marmet today. The follow us to Hinton. They follow us everywhere they go,” McGraw said in the Racine speech.
“They follow us…looking for ugly. Ugliness. To report lies. Things that are untrue. Who do they think elected me?!” McGraw shouted, hoarsely.
Election Night 2004 was a good night to be a Republican in West Virginia. State voters helped send George W. Bush back to the White House.
They elected Republican Betty Ireland as Secretary of State -- the first woman to win office at that level of state government.
And they voted for Benjamin over McGraw, 53 to 47 percent.
At a celebration party that night, Blankenship denied he had bought an election.
“There’s people who have been in politics for a long time that have bought votes. I’ve never bought a vote,” he said.
“All I did was set out to help people understand the issues, and let the people decide.”
That night, reporters were already asking Benjamin if he would recuse himself from any cases involving Don Blankenship or Massey Energy.
Benjamin had an answer -- one he would stick with despite enormous pressure.
“I think that’s an unfair question, just as it would be unfair to ask Warren McGraw if he’d have to recuse himself from any case a trail lawyer was in who contributed to one of the 527s against me,” Benjamin said.
“I appreciate them for supporting my campaign for what I believe in. But it doesn’t change what I believe,” he said.
A year later, Caperton’s lawyers asked Justice Benjamin to remove himself from the case. But Benjamin refused.
In November 2007, he sided with Massey in a 3-2 decision to reverse the Boone County jury verdict. Caperton asked for another hearing.
And then, photos surfaced of Justice Spike Maynard vacationing in the French Riviera with Blankenship while the case was pending.
The photos of a smiling Maynard and Blankenship standing side-by-side became fodder for their own campaign ads.
“Spike Maynard spent time in the French Riviera with Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy,” one ad said.
“And when they got back, Spike Maynard was the deciding vote for Massey Energy in a $50 million case. Let’s tell Spike to take a hike.”
After the photos came out, Maynard recused himself from the Caperton case.
So did Justice Larry Starcher, who had sided with Caperton before, and whose impartiality was questioned when he called Blankenship “a clown” and accused him of buying a seat on the supreme court.
Two new judges were appointed to take the place of Maynard and Starcher. But Benjamin refused to step away, and again voted in a 3-2 decision in favor of Massey.
By now, the case was attracting national attention. An ABC News camera crew stalked Blankenship in his office parking lot.
In the ABC video, Blankenship tells the crew, “You all start taking a picture of me, you’re liable to get shot,” and then shoves the camera away.
Just when this story started to sound like the plot of a John Grisham novel – it turned out to be the plot of the new John Grisham novel, “The Appeal.” Grisham discussed the book with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer.
“There’s a $41 million jury award against this company, and the head of the company says, I’m not going to pay it,” Lauer said, explaining the plot.
“What I’m going to do is avoid paying it by stacking the court that eventually going to hear the appeal on this case,” Lauer said.
“It’s already happened,” Grisham replied. “It happened a few years ago in West Virginia.
“A guy owned a coal company, got tired of getting sued, he elected his guy to the Supreme Court, and now he doesn’t worry about getting sued,” Grisham said.
In May, Maynard lost his primary race, and later, Starcher retired.
Meanwhile, Caperton took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Representing him was Ted Olson – a sort-of a Supreme Court superstar.
He’s President George W. Bush’s former lawyer and the man who successfully argued Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court decision that helped put Bush in the White House.
In March, Olson made his oral arguments to the Supreme Court. Later that day, he explained why he believed Benjamin’s refusal to recuse himself violated the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“The test is, if you’re going to go into court against someone on the other side, and if they, with their pocketbook, and the ones to put that judge in office, are you thinking you’re going to get a fair trial?” Olson said.
“If not, then it’s not a fair trial, and due process is being violated.”
A slim majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Olson. In the 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that Blankenship’s huge contributions made it appear as if he was choosing Benjamin as his own judge.
“Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when -- without the other parties’ consent -- a man chooses the judge in his own cause,” Kennedy wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent, criticized the majority’s decision for being too vague, and failing to answer basic questions, such as “How much money is too much?”
Roberts writes: “The Court’s new ‘rule’ provides no guidance to judges and litigants about when recusal will be constitutionally required. This will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be.”
It’s an opinion shared by Michigan lawyer Patrick Wright, who filed an amicus brief on Massey’s side.
Wright predicts hundreds of what he calls “Caperton claims” against judges.
“You’re going to see a short period of chaos, at which point the Supreme Court will decide if they can get control of this and come up with clear standards, or if they are going to have to reverse themselves and do away with this test,” Wright said.
But the majority of justices didn’t believe there will be a flood of bias claims against judges. James Sample of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University agrees.
“I think the court’s decision is narrow, but nonetheless hugely important,” he said.
“The decision points to all the factors, each of them extreme in its own right, that were at play here, and says, taking the all together, it rises to the constitutional level. That will be a very, very rare case,” Sample said.
Now, the case goes back to the West Virginia Supreme Court – but this time, without Benjamin.
Usually, it’s the chief justice who appoints a replacement, but in this case, the chief justice is Benjamin. So another justice will step into that role and appoint the judge to replace Benjamin.
In a statement Monday, Benjamin said, "I am pleased that the Supreme Court has not questioned my ethics, my integrity, or my personal impartiality or propriety. As a personal matter, that is very important to me and I appreciate the fact that the justices made a specific point of clarifying that issue."
Massey Energy released a statement saying the company believes it will win without Benjamin.
Meanwhile, the president of the United Mine Workers of America praised the ruling.
Caperton’s company employed UMWA miners, and Cecil Roberts said union members are owed $13 million in health benefits which the verdict could pay off.
And, thanks to the miracle of compound interest, that $50 million verdict from 2002 has grown to an estimated $82 million.