Gavel Grab

Caperton Case Reprised in Mine Blast Report

A recent government report on the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia blamed owner Massey Energy and its management.

Yet the report also asked some questions that went unanswered, and in doing so, it briefly reprised the political influence-wielding episode that ended up with a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2009 — Caperton v. Massey — about big political spending in judicial elections posing a threat to impartial courts.

One chapter of the report is entitled, “How could this happen in West Virginia?” The report said state mining inspectors face numerous challenges, and they also “face an additional obstacle, which can be described simply as the politics of the State of West Virginia.” It explained that the “chain of command for West Virginia state inspectors leads directly into the governor’s office.”

Not that it was jumping to any conclusions, the report added. But there can be a “chilling effect” for inspectors, it warned, even if there is just a perception that a well-placed political call might succeed:

“This is not to suggest that any state official or governor intervened in a mine safety issue, but the perception that such intervention is possible can create a chilling effect for inspectors trying to do their job. What is factual and well documented is that Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship had a long history of wielding or attempting to wield influence in the state’s seats of government.”

The report then took the unusual step of summarizing the events underlying the Caperton case. Blankenship spent $3 million in 2004 to help elect a West Virginia Supreme Court justice, Brent Benjamin. His coal company went on to benefit from two critical votes by the justice to overturn a massive jury award against it.

That wasn’t all, the report noted. It said “a close personal friend of Blankenship already was sitting on the state’s highest court — Judge Elliott ‘Spike’ Maynard, who, like Blankenship, was a native of Mingo County.” In 2008 Maynard provided a second vote in a narrow 3-2 decision overturning the jury award against Massey. The report went on to quote Hugh Caperton, who had sued Massey and secured the initial jury award:

“Having two of the votes that go against you come from, one, a close personal friend of Don Blankenship’s, and, two, a justice who received the benefit of Don Blankenship’s $3 million spending spree on the Supreme Court race certainly gives me pause, and it should give every citizen pause as to whether justice really was done here.”

After pictures surfaced of Blankenship and Justice Maynard vacationing earlier in the French Riviera, Justice Maynard stepped aside from hearing the case. Justice Benjamin did not recuse himself.

In Caperton, the high court ruled it was unconstitutional for Justice Benjamin to hear a case involving the financial interests of a major financial backer of his election campaign. It required the justice to disqualify himself and directed a re-hearing in the appeal. Blankenship’s political spending has become a poster case for judicial reform advocates and is the subject of many Gavel Grab posts.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch killed 29 men and was the worst mining disaster in 40 years, according to an ABC News article.

“Twenty-nine coal miners paid with their lives for corporate risk-taking,” J. Davitt McAteer wrote in the report. A former federal mine administrator, he was named to investigate the blast by West Virginia’s governor. “[Massey Energy] broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the laws and blatantly disregarding safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.”

The report also faulted federal and state regulators for “failing to use all the tools at their disposal.”

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